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Juan Espinosa Chica

The man whose name I forgot to ask told me the story better than the reader can ever imagine

Almudena Grandes

Juan Espinosa Chica - that's the man's name.

In July 2008, I accepted an invitation to give a lecture at a cultural festival in Alcalá la Real, a town in the Sierra Sur de Jaén in Andalusia. The trip meant a number of things to me. A few months earlier I had finished the first draft of a novel, The Reader of Jules Verne, and I was enthused at the chance to see where it happened - the mountains, rivers, oaks and olive fields where my characters had lived. So before and after my lecture I spent time travelling, village by village, through a landscape that had, of course, existed long before I was born, yet had somehow been born again in my pages.

I will never forget those days, the beauty of the landscapes that far surpassed my imagination, so many small details, accents, words, wary looks, smiles and the surprise that my knowledge of the guerrilla Cencerro's story aroused in the strangers I talked to,who, once they had decided I was to be trusted, treated me as if we were old acquaintances.

But above all, I can never forget him, a tall man with very black hair, who asked me to dinner at his house. We entered through his blacksmith shop, and looked out a window. There, in the village of Valdepeñas de Jaén, where it all happened in 1947, I understood at last how it was that Tomás Villán Roldán, alias "Cencerro," had faced death as freely as he had always lived.

Having read the story time and again without quite seeing it happen, I looked out that window and saw and understood as clearly as if I had seen it with my own eyes.

- "In those days, this street didn't exist" - my host spoke with the assurance of one passing on a story he has heard hundreds of times - "nor those houses over there, either. They came down that trail, you see? They crossed the river, waved to the men at the mill upstream there, who were clearing the channel, and entered through a window like this one in the house next door..."

Once they trusted me, the strangers I talked to treated me like we were old acquaintances

I was so excited, that I forgot to ask him what his name was. And some years later, when the book came out, that omission stuck in my memory like a thorn, for seldom have I felt so grateful to anyone, but I could not pin my gratitude to a name.

So, a few weeks ago, I returned to Valdepeñas de Jaén to present the novel in the Mill-Museum of Santa Ana - a wonderful place, the same mill Cencerro passed, and waved at the men who were working there on his last night of freedom.

For how was he to know that the Civil Guard had come to their homes and taken them away, putting in their place two trusted informers to busy themselves ostensibly clearing the channel?

In the village I hoped to see the nameless man again, and scanned the crowd in search of him, so as to remember and thank him by name. I didn't see him, and began to think he had not identified me, or connected my visit with the novel.

But after the speech a tall girl with very black hair came up to my table, and asked if I remembered a blacksmith I had spoken with. Yes of course, I said. "He's my father," she added. "He couldn't come, but he gave me a message for you." I was afraid it would be a bitter complaint that I hadn't mentioned him on the many-thanks page, but this was not the case. "He says you told the story very well."

-And what's your father's name?

-Juan Espinosa Chica.

So there it is, with all the gratitude of a lucky writer, who could never have told the story of Cencerro half so well, if a man from Valdepeñas de Jaén had not had the generosity to tell it to her, better than the reader can ever imagine.

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