“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor,” wrote Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway, who popularized the sport in his first novel “The Sun Also Rises” and later the non-fiction book “Death in the Afternoon.”
In fact, Hemingway’s writing is credited with turning the running of the bulls festival in Pamplona from a quirky local event into a worldwide sensation. It’s no wonder several Spanish cities have streets and statues honoring him. Hemingway’s interest in watching bullfighting in Spain began in his early 20s and lasted until his death, when tickets to a bullfight were found near his body.
As a fellow writer, I was curious to understand Hemingway’s fascination so when I was in Madrid during bullfighting season (April-September) in 2014, I took the plunge (pun intended) and went to a fight. I bought a ticket directly at Las Ventas bullring, one of Spain’s most famous. My seat was excellent and I was wedged between two elderly Spanish men who schooled me on the rules.
“First, six bulls are selected in pairs to three matadors,” one explained through puffs of a cigar.
The bullfight always begins in the late afternoon (ending around sunset) with each matador and his team walking into the arena in a musical procession. The president of the bullfight presides over the event.
“Each bull is engaged by matador assistants with large pink capes to see how it moves in the bullring,” puffed my chain cigar-smoking neighbor. “Then two picadors (lancers on horseback) mildly pierce the bull´s neck to weaken it, lower its head and straighten its charge. Next, three banderilleros (usually older bullfighters on the matador’s team) taunt the bull and insert two banderillas (decorated wooden spears) into its neck muscle. Finally, the matador engages the bull in a dance-like fashion, moving from a pink and yellow capote (large cape) to a red muleta (smaller cape) that hides a curved sword. At the right moment, he plunges the sword into the bull’s skull for an instant death. (Unfortunately, sometimes this doesn’t happen and the animal suffers even more).”
After “death in the afternoon occurs,” the bull carcass is quickly removed by harnessed horses, then sold in a butcher shop or local market. If the matador performs well and kills the bull quickly, the audience waves white handkerchiefs to encourage the president to award an ear or two ears and tail to him, explained my new best friend. If awarded, the matador parades around the bullring holding his prize.
We observed this first-hand. The whole arena brightened up with white flags like concert goers with lighters. The crowd went as wild as the bull before his death. Spaniards are extremely passionate about sports.
Should a bull get revenge instead, wounding the matador, a remaining matador must kill it. When the sixth and last bull is dead, the matadors and their teams gather in the bullring for applause.
While I appreciated the pomp, circumstance and elegance of the performers, watching the bull kills was horrifying. I vowed not to see another bullfight but I was lured back into the ring in Sevilla a year later by my French companion at the time, Laurent. He had never been to a fight and like me, was curious to know why Hemingway was so bullish about it.
We went to Sevilla during its massive annual fair, Feria de Abril, which features a renown bullfighting festival at Maestranza arena. It was a packed with fans due to famous matadors performing. Again, white hankerchiefs waved like mad after outstanding matador performances and one matador preened with bull ears and a tail.
“The perfect kill is gory and sublime at the same time. But in spite of their bravery, these matadors look like ballerinas,” Laurent quipped.
While not far from the truth, they are considered the epitome of testosterone, with women crooning over them. In fact, matadors are akin to football stars in the United States and Europe, earning millions of dollars a year and cultivating fan clubs. For example, Julián López Escobar, known as El Juli as the Michael Jordan of bullfighting, earned about a half a million dollars per fight. He was the highest paid in the field by the age of 17! While he was gored several times – including in the scrotum as an ultimate bull revenge – he lives to tell about it with a fortune in the bank.
Sometimes, bulls get accidentally injured as well. One matador at the Sevilla fight failed to kill a bull after several attempts, creating a torturous bloodbath.
“There was a bit of butchery when the matador was lousy,” Laurent aptly reported.
While matadors dominate bullfighting, there are some matadoras. One was exceptional: Conchita Cintrón of Peru. She made her debut as a 13-year-old in Lima in 1937, defying all social female norms. Like Joan of Arc, she was skilled on foot and horseback, but unlike the “Arc,” she had many kills – more than 750 bulls in Europe and Latin America until she retired at age 27. (She lived to be 86. Hemingway missed the opportunity to write about her.)
Efforts to stop bullfighting by animal rights activists have been thwarted over the years in most of Spain due to the sport being declared national cultural heritage. (Yet UNESCO rejected an application for it to be recognized as intangible cultural heritage.) The only exception was Catalonia, including Barcelona, which banned bullfighting as of 2012. France has the opposite situation, generally banning the practice of “La Corrida” with the exception of areas where there is an “unbroken, local, tradition” such as Nîmes.
Spain and France are among a handful of countries in which bullfighting occurs and ends with a bull kill. Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela share this tradition given their Spanish heritage. Portugal has a bloodless version, sparing most bulls. (But those severely injured are finished off by butchers. The mildly scathed are farmed out to rodeos or put out to pasture.)
The conquistadors brought bullfighting to Latin America in the 1500s and now Mexico is only second to Spain in its promulgation of the sport. In fact, Mexico City has the largest bullfighting ring in the world. But Spain dominates bullfighter training with 30 schools (no bull!).
While we felt sorry for the bulls, Laurent and I conceded that bullfighting was fascinating and something to write home about, but not entire books, in spite of Hemingway’s way with words about it. We did not share his obsession with “death in the afternoon,” rather with Spanish tapas and wine in the evening.