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Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

Bullfighters and Nut-jobs

Por: | 15 de diciembre de 2011

Ventas

Yiyo was the last bullfighter to be killed in Spain, in 1985. After he’d driven the sword through the bull’s heart, the final act of the bullfight, the bull took issue and drove a horn through Yiyo’s heart, splitting it in two. The matador died almost instantly though had the presence of mind and sense of occasion to announce, “The bull has killed me.”

I was meeting James under Yiyo’s statue outside Las Ventas, Madrid’s colossal red brick and Andalusian tile bullring. Crowds milled as black rainclouds hunched overhead. James arrived. He’s a tall American university professor who has lived in Madrid for a very long time. I’d heard from a mutual friend that James is an aficionado, a lover of bullfights. So I asked James if he’d take me. He said he didn’t go much anymore, but was always happy to take someone to their first corrida.

We entered through the Big Door, a tall and broad Moorish keyhole of a gate. The barking of young men renting cushions and the cackling of old men smoking cigars echoed in the dark corridors around the ring. James said before we went through we needed cushions and beer. As we queued for the beer, I told him I’d been boning up reading Hemingway’s bullfighting treatise Death in the Afternoon.

He nodded, “Hem’s book is dated, but it’s a classic.”

In the amphitheatre we sat on our cushions, drank our beer and hoped it wouldn’t rain. James said I had bought good seats. The arches, the concrete seating, the plush royal box and the round pit of sand in the middle - everything was gladiatorial and ancient. I said to James bullfighting seemed shrouded in mystery - so bygone and ritualistic. And that Hemingway had said that while watching my first fight I wouldn’t know if it was good or not. How do you know? What does a good bullfight look like?

“It’s like pornography,” James replied, “you know it when you see it.”

Trumpets sounded and things got underway. This was a typical bullfight - each of the three matadors, prancing proudly in a tight suit of glinting gold, fights two bulls. And each fight is a carefully timed sequence of events - first the picadores on armoured horseback pierce the bull’s neck with long spears, next the banderilleros on foot pierce the bull’s neck with short spears, and then the matador goes to work with his red cape - dominating and controlling the weakened but provoked animal. Finally the matador, with a sword thrust through its heart, kills the bull.

If the matador fights well the audience waves white handkerchiefs to ask that he be allowed to cut an ear from the dead bull, as a trophy. If he fights very well he may be allowed two ears. And then two ears plus the tail et cetera. By that point the matador is almost guaranteed the ultimate honour of being carried into the street on the shoulders of the crowd. At Las Ventas that means being carried out the Big Door.

The opposite of being carried triumphant out the Big Door is being carried bleeding off the sand. Gorings are common. There’s Yiyo who got the horn through the heart. Then there’s the Frenchman on YouTube who got one up his bum while running away from the bull (he lived, though probably wishes he was dead). And last year a popular Spanish matador, Julio Aparicio, was gored through the throat. The horn exited perfectly out Julio’s mouth, cleaving his tongue in two. He survived, just, but still looks a little peakish (and in denial - post-goring he told Der Spiegel that he considers himself a friend of the bulls). And James told me I should keep an eye on the news over summer. Inevitably, in some village in the dark depths of Spain, an old man, a spectator, will be killed when a bull jumps the fence of the village bullring and lands in the crowd (and on the old man).

But only the bulls died in our drizzly bullfight. And when it was bad, and it was mostly bad, the crowd booed, whistled and waved green handkerchiefs. A green hanky is waved to demand the bull be replaced - if it is lame, cowardly or in any way not noble. This happened twice - one was lame (it tripped early on) and another was cowardly (it tried to jump the fence and get the hell out of the ring). And the first two bullfighters weren’t much better - artless and plodding with the cape. One section of rough looking spectators was especially critical. They waved their green hankies and yelled complaints like “Festival of Children!” and “Festival of Cockroaches!”

“Those guys are always here,” James said. “That’s the hardcore section.” Then he added, “I used to sit there.”

But when the third bullfighter, Tejela, came on, it became good. And when it was good, the arena went silent. My questions to James were hushed by the cigar smoker in front. And as the bull passed through Tejela’s cape, the matador’s feet firmly planted, his body swinging, his bottom clenched and feminine, I briefly saw what they came for. There was beauty in the way he moved. Soon the silence was broken by cries of “Olé” from the hardcore section. And then cries of “Olé” from everybody as the bull charged back and forth, passing inches from Tejela’s puffed chest. James bristled and yelled “Yeah!” each time the matador flicked his cape over the horns. Tejela looked set to be carried out the Big Door.

And then it all fell apart. At the moment of the kill, Tejela drove his sword into the bull but immediately pulled it out. The crowd gasped. James gasped. I wasn’t sure what had happened. Was it intentional?

“No!” cried James. “You’re not supposed to do that!” Tejela again lined up his sword and again drove it into the poor animal. And again he pulled it out. The crowd booed and whistled. The matador’s fortunes had reversed entirely and he now looked more likely to be booted out the Back Door. On his third go, the sword held and the bull died.

Tejela hung his head, embarrassed. As the bull was dragged off the crowd applauded its carcass. The bull had showed nobility. The man hadn’t. But that the man lived and got paid, and the bull killed and eaten, seemed a strange way to award success.

We drank afterwards in a bullfighting bar across the road. It was lined with photos of cocksure matadors and bulls’ heads, with their forelegs intact, charging out from the walls. James asked what I thought of the fight.

“Impressive and tedious,” I replied. “Out of place and out of time.” The hardcore guys came in, pushing past and wedging me between the bar and their stomachs. “And it seems the preserve of the Spanish right-wing. Of fascists,” I whispered. James shook his head.

“Not true,” he replied. “It’s a myth that aficionados are only right-wing nut-jobs. There are plenty of left-wing nut-jobs as well.” He ordered another couple of beers and added, with a laugh, “Spain is full of nut-jobs.”

James is a Madrid-based writer (www.jamesblick.com)

Hay 7 Comentarios

I liked your article James. It is a great account of a first time at a bullfight and I must say it was quite accurate of my first visit to Ventas. Despite the polemic that this debate has around it, there is something quite stange about entering the arena wthout knowing what to expect and exiting even more confused about how you feel about it. For all the politics and controversy there are flashes of art, splattered against a background of brutality, danger and disgust. Turning away from the politics it was a good read and reminded me of a good book I read recently by Fisk-Harrison called 'Into the Arena', I'm not an aficianado but you would probably enjoy it.

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@Juanín or Juanito:
You forgot cannibalism and mistreatment.

As for "beauty" and "supreme form of art", what a ridiculous defence of the indefensible. Art is in the eye of the beholder: someone might argue, just for the sake of argument, that burning witches was a sublime aesthetic experience, or that Auschwitz was the ultimate work of art, or that decapitating chooks as they still do in villages all over the world is but an expression of folklore and culinary art. Bullfighting is an anachronistic, Fascist-leaning practice that should have no place in a 21st-century European country boasting modernity (Spain modern? my ass, I say). It's an indictment on Spanish society that it still attracts support.

Hi Juan,

Thanks for your comments. As per article 84 of the Real Decreto 145/96 a bull can be removed if it has “defectos ostensibles" or it assumes "conductas que impidieren el normal desarrollo de ésta.” There are many instances (a search of El País will reveal some of them) of bulls being removed because they are “manso” (i.e. docile/meek). You may be right about bulls not landing on old men. James’ comment made me laugh and, given the light-hearted tone of the piece, I thought it worth repeating. I didn’t say I find bullfighting “disgusting, vicious, repulsive” - I don’t particularly find it any of those. I said I found it impressive, tedious and out of time.

James

Sorry for the mistakes - inaccurate, mistreatment, slaughterhouses. It is better to check before posting!

James, your article is innacurate in some points. A bull cannot be replaced just for not being brave - that is a condition of the bull that a bullfighter should know how to 'solve'. It has to be changed when it is lame. Besides, I do not think a spectator in the grandstand has ever been killed by a bull, not even in the darkest village in the middle of nowhere. You are probably mistaking it with 'encierros', San Fermin style.

Finally, I perfectly understand that you find bullfighting disgusting, vicious, repulsive, etc. Something contradictory as a corrida, based equally upon beauty and death, is logically controversial and can be loved or detested, seen as a supreme form of art or just as an act of animal mistreat. But I think the comparison between the (unfair) outcomes for the matador and the bull is unfortunate - like comparing canibalism with eating a steak, slaughterhauses with concentration camps.

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Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

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