Dancer of Death: A Novel of Manolete
Archway Publishing (2022)
Reviewed by Lee Barckmann for Reader Views (06/2022)
“Dancer of Death” is based on the life of the Spanish bullfighter, Manolete, who was the most famous matador of the 1940s. His death in the ring brought telegrams of condolences to the Spanish people from Harry Truman and Winston Churchill, and millions attended his funeral procession.
Manolete was raised in poverty by his mother in southern Spain. His great uncle, a minor matador, died from his injuries fighting bulls. His father also achieved some small success in the plaza del toro but died from illness when Manolete was a child. Manolete’s older sister became a prostitute to support the family, and his mother tried to dissuade young Manolete from becoming a bullfighter and become a butcher instead. But because of his family’s poverty, he decided as a young teenager to take up the capote y estoque (cape and sword).
The story is told as a delirium-induced flashback of memories that flooded the dying Manolete, who was fatally gored at what he intended to be his last bullfight, at the peak of his popularity among his country’s affectionados.
Manolete was neither successful nor promising in his early years. He tried to be flashy with lots of physical movement in the ring, only to fail abysmally. In his early years, he worked as a bull fighting clown, just to make money, and this is where he has his first sexual experience. He is discovered by a famous manager, however, who sees promise in the skinny and awkward youth. He teaches Manolete his final mature style, to be cold and severe, standing erect, expressionless, and still while allowing the bull to pass within a centimeter of his body. Then just as he began to mature as a matador, the Spanish Civil war breaks out and he is drafted into Franco’s fascist army.
The author’s account of the Spanish Civil War is a short, straightforward, dry recitation of the facts, without partisan bias. The author says that Manolete, in spite of his military service, had no interest in politics and downplays this aspect of his life. As a reader, I wanted to dive a bit deeper into this, but perhaps it was typical during that time for most to want to forget and move on, which Manolete does.
We get a brief biography of his last and most famous mistress, who was also born into poverty. The author portrays her as vain, selfish and greedy. She moves from serving as maid in a wealthy household (where she allows herself to be seduced by the husband), to a long series of couch casting adventures that eventually leads to minor stardom in the Spanish film industry. She changes her name to Lupe Sino and meets Manolete in a nightclub and they stay together through most of the last decade of his life.
The author writes in great detail about 1930-40s decor, clothing fashion, popular culture, jewelry, and antiques. She gives the reader a plethora of detail about bullfighting, such as the life history of the most famous and feared bull, Islero, and of his breed, the Miuras, and the history of the breed and even why its brand was an “A” and not a “M”. She gives long detailed descriptions of the key fights in Manolete’s career, with the rituals of the dance, each stage of the fights, with explanations of technical movements, giving the Spanish names for each.
This reviewer enjoyed learning about this history, and the many inside details of what makes a great bullfighter, and what makes a great bullfight. However, the dialogue among the characters at times seems wooden and overdrawn, and lacks the feel of the way people really talk. For example, when Manolete and Lupe are discussing the possibility of getting married, they get off into a long quasi-academic discussion that references politics, ecclesiastical history, with only a vague connection to how it relates to their marital issues. Their back-and-forth sounds false coming from two people who are otherwise highly emotional, uneducated, and self-involved Spanish celebrities.
Nevertheless, “Dancer of Death: A Novel of Manolete” by Jeanne Blanchet is well researched, very well written, and delivers a well-structured story about bullfighting and about Spanish society during the era.