Antonio Muñoz Molina
Apr 24, 2020 – 12:02 CEST
José María Calleja, in 2017. BERNARDO PÉREZ
Terrorism was defeated and José Mari enjoyed his new free life without bitterness or rancor. Those of us who knew him will not forget him
Lunch presentation of his book was over an hour late and almost no one was left in the restaurant. The journalists had left, and almost all the guests, and we, my wife and I, also had the time to say goodbye, although it was difficult, because José Mari Calleja was one of those people who have the gift of prolonging without effort or fatigue the duration of meals and after-meals. José Mari was one of those people of great physical size who squeeze the face when they kiss and leave the hand sore after a squeeze, and hug as if each encounter was happening after a separation of years. His voice was very powerful and his laughter could thunder the murmuring room of a restaurant. So he was more impressive when he became serious, when he was struck by a new blow of horror in those years of daily ignominy, when he and as many as himself got used to living in a confinement much more distressing than now. Any day, anytime, anywhere, they could be blown out by a bomb installed under the car or they could be approached from behind the barrel of a pistol. José Mari, like many others, had had to leave the Basque Country, and now lived in Madrid, but he was still surrounded by security measures and accompanied by escort policemen who were already his friends. That day, after the presentation, we had chatted, laughed, ranted so much that when we were leaving we were surprised that José Mari, who was accompanying us, stopped just before leaving, without stepping on the sidewalk. We had momentarily forgotten, but not him: “I have to wait for the escorts.”
And he said goodbye to us from the threshold of the restaurant, saying goodbye to us as we walked away, and being alone, left behind by force, smiling and sad, with that smile that was as excessive as his laughter. Someone dies and suddenly we have to change the verb tense with which we mentioned him. We saw José Mari Calleja stay alone that day after the din of food and the presentation of his book, which was urgent, rushed and necessary, like so many things he did: and now we are also left behind, left behind in the death, his unmistakable large face lost among the multitude of faces of those struck by the epidemic, he who bravely resisted that other epidemic of fanaticism and crime, of opportunism and cynicism and crime, of political impudence and ecclesiastical hypocrisy and the crime repeated almost daily, celebrated daily by an unclean mob of terror worshipers, justified with half-cult words by university professors, wrapped in unctuous euphemisms by a bishop of infamous memory who only once agreed to receive a group of victims of terrorism, and he received them lying rudely on a sofa, and told them, apostolically: “Nowhere is it written that the pastor has to love equally all his sheep”.
José Mari Calleja was dismissed as the host of the Basque television news program for calling ETA gunmen and dynamiters murderers, with all the letters. Every criminal organization secretes a dirty slime of euphemisms, to which even the most serious institutions subscribe without problem. The killers were activists, the crimes actions, the killing of helpless people “armed struggle”, and the media as serious as the BBC or The Guardian or The New York Times apparently called ETA “armed liberation movement”, with that sympathy towards the cause of Spanish democracy that has always characterized them. The debasement of language went hand in hand with that of consciences and behavior. Whoever did not remain silent or did not lower his head was killed. And after killing him, they offended his memory by calling him a “fascist” and even went to the cemetery to desecrate his grave.
José Mari Calleja was one of the first to raise his voice and resist wholeheartedly. In any part of Spain being a councilor was common, and even vulgar. In the Basque Country, being a councilor of the Socialist Party or the Popular Party was always risking your own life, and quite often it was also losing it. The terrorists took advantage of the inevitable fear and also of the miserable inability of the Spanish political forces to agree on the four or five essential things that unite us all and to distinguish between adversaries and enemies. People like José Mari Calleja encouraged in the worst years a political fraternity between socialists, popular and people without a party of very different ideas based on the elementary defense of freedom and life. In September 2000, after a summer overflowing with blood, the civic group Basta Ya, one of whose founders was Calleja, organized a demonstration in San Sebastián that had never been seen before. One hundred thousand people took to the streets that day, carrying banners with the names of each of those killed. We had the honor of being there. Calleja went from one side of the crowd to the other, spreading her Herculean hugs, her laughs of joy.
Shortly afterwards a misfortune harder than the threat of crime struck him. A teenage son of his went out on a bike through the urbanization near Madrid where they lived and a van knocked him to the ground, and he fell into a coma. José Mari Calleja and Susana were visited by the friends of the resistance at the hospital —many of them, with their escorts— and they waited by their side for some sign that the boy was regaining consciousness. It didn’t seem possible that there was more pain in the world. That man without any vocation of victim and with so much capacity for joy walked through the corridors of the hospital like a cast down shadow. One hugged him and had to hold that large body shaken by crying.
Now nobody remembers all that, except those who suffered wounds that cannot be healed. The miserable Spanish political quarrel has not allowed the memory of the victims to be preserved intact, nor has the example of those in the Basque Country who put democratic harmony and decency above a sterile sectarianism whose sole purpose seems to destroy, now just as so. Terrorism was defeated by citizen rebellion and by the withering weight of the law, and José Mari Calleja enjoyed his new free life without bitterness or rancor. Those of us who knew him are not going to forget about him nor about anything he did and represented.