On Bullfighting

On Bullfighting
by A. L. Kennedy
Anchor Books
165 pages, $8.80

On Bullfighting, a slim volume by the acclaimed Scottish novelist A. L. Kennedy, was first brought out in Great Britain in 1999 by Yellow Jersey Press, an imprint of Random House that specializes in serious books about sports written by non-sportswriters. As befits a book about the superstitious, symbolism-laden world of the corrida, the idea for the project originated with a dream. "The person who commissioned me to write the book initially commissioned me to do a book on fencing," Kennedy explains, "which I used to do. Then she had a dream about me and bullfighting, and phoned up and said, 'You should do a book about bullfighting.'" When she embarked on the assignment Kennedy was battling personal demons (the opening scene of the book finds the writer seated on a window ledge in a perilous state of mind) and, as she confesses in the first chapter, she had no special affinity for the subject matter:

When I began the necessary research, I could have heard that the corrida had been banned throughout the world for ever and ever amen and I would have remained unconcerned. I came to this with entirely selfish motives. I wanted to see if I was still capable of writing anything at all. I wanted to keep my mind occupied, because—left to its own devices—it might very well manage to kill, or at least torment me. And I wanted to discover if the elements which seemed so much a part of the corrida—death, transcendence, immortality, joy, pain, isolation and fear—would come back to me. Because they were part of the process of writing and, good and bad, I miss them.

Kennedy persevered, tackling her material with curiosity, intelligence, and wit. She was determined to see and understand this phenomenon which, outside of the Spanish-speaking world, is largely regarded as a barbaric anachronism.

The book is structured as a linear narrative, drawing on Kennedy's research trips to Madrid and Seville—and, as with the best travel writing, the physical journey cleaves to a personal one. The poet Federico GarcÌa Lorca, not Hemingway, is invoked as a spiritual guide. An engaging storyteller, Kennedy adroitly interweaves introspection and private reminiscence with an impressive array of information about taurine matters. In preparation for the first description of a live bullfight, which doesn't occur until three-quarters of the way into the book, we are educated about Europe's bull-worshiping history; we are informed that the modern toros bravos are descended from the ferocious aurochs ("up to six feet high at the shoulder") which were fought by gladiators in the Coliseum in Julius Caesar's time; we get lessons in bull breeding, bull behavior, and bull physiology (there is a fascinating section on the bovine visual system which deconstructs how the bull responds to movement); we are introduced to the socioeconomic milieu that produces matadors and the psychology that sustains them in their routine confrontations with death. In Kennedy's telling, the corrida is a welter of contradictions. "What happens in the ring is more complicated, repellent, fascinating, grotesque, sacramental, ugly, ritualistic, haphazard, sacred and blasphemous than any fight." It is not a sport and it is not an art; it is a quasi-religious ritual. By no means is Kennedy an apologist for the corrida. The first bullfight she sees, with amateur matadors, is a travesty, "much nearer butchery and farce than art." She doesn't understand how the spectacle she witnessed "could be worth any living thing's injury or death" and wonders whether the transcendant communion between man and beast that is celebrated in the bullfighting literature has any basis in reality. But in watching Enrique Ponce and El Juli, the top matadors of the day, she catches, and captures for the reader, something of that frisson:

The matador appears to clear a way through the air with his muleta for exactly the path the bull desires to follow. Rather than tricking the bull, Ponce gives the impression that he knows what it wants before it does, that he is here to help. This is the body knowledge of a lover, played out as theater and execution.
Everytime the bull falters or stalls, Ponce stays with it, closer and closer, the animal's blood slowly painting the front of his traje, no one in the world but them, no one in the world but us, because he has cited us, too, drawn us into the inexorable movement towards his goal, the kill.

A. L. Kennedy's work has been highly praised on both sides of the Atlantic. Her first book of short stories, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1991), appeared when she was twenty-five. Since then there have been four novels—Looking for the Possible Dance (1993), So I Am Glad (1995), Original Bliss (1997), and Everything You Need (1999)—another collection of stories, Now That You're Back (1994), and a nonfiction monograph, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1997). She first reached U.S. readers two years ago with the North American publication of Original Bliss, about the stuttering romance between a lonely housewife searching for her faith and a pop-psychologist with an addiction to pornography. She also writes for the screen and the stage. She lives in Glasgow.

—Julia Livshin

A. L. Kennedy
A. L. Kennedy   

If one were to attend a bullfight unprimed, without having had any introduction, what might one get out of it?

You'd probably be surprised. People have preconceptions—either that the audience will be full of blood-crazed Latin types engaged in some kind of orgiastic sacrifice, or the opposite cliché, that it will be fantastically beautiful and wonderfully choreographed, like a dance. Actually, there's no bloodlust. And even with a very good matador and a very good bull, the nature of the thing is that it isn't seamless and it can't be entirely graceful. There will be spasms of grace. It's a very odd, ramshackle thing. There are all kinds of strange pauses and clumsy bits, and patches of costume drama, and then patches of this very odd, sometimes beautiful communication. But anybody that I've spoken to who expected to see a dance or a spectacle has actually been more disappointed than if they went expecting to see a kind of Roman carnival.

The theater critic and bullfight enthusiast Kenneth Tynan wrote, "No public spectacle in the world is more technical, offers less to the untaught observer, than a bullfight." Do you agree?

There's an awful lot of that in bullfighting. There's an awful lot of snobbery. It is technical, but it's not impenetrably technical. It is quite difficult to get aficionados to speak to you, though. People in Spain assume that if you're making an inquiry from Britain, you're going to give them a hard time, or offer death threats. A lot of campaigning against the corrida is based in the UK. Initially it took me about six months to find anybody qualified who would speak about it.

There is a lot of technical nitpicking that goes on. There is a whole circle of aficionados who truly want to discuss whether the matador's left foot was advanced a quarter of an inch or an eighth of an inch. But that's very much a spectator's point of view. As a matador, you're under such stress and such pressure. The best ones are making passes instinctively; the worst ones are just panicking. It may look like the pass that they intended to make. I've seen El Juli barged by a bull and put into a spin that he couldn't stop. There's a particular pass where you fan out the cape around you, as if it were kind of a pleated skirt, and because he was barged he moved into that pass and improvised that form. If you spoke to some of the aficionados, they would present it as if he had planned that before he even went in the ring, when in fact it was actually an instinctive response to something that could kill you.

And if you read Hemingway, for example, he gives an awful lot of information that is just plain wrong. He can't tell a pasillo from a paseo. He either mishears or just never troubles to find out. Although aficionados like the fact that Hemingway made things accessible for a wider public, they are also slightly annoyed by his lack of technical precision.

Once you were in Spain, was it still difficult to get people in bullfighting circles to speak to you?

No. Once you're there, they're so surprised that you're at least open-minded about it, even though you're British and don't have their culture. And if you know the name of any matador or any pass, if you remotely know what's happening, they're very pleased. At the bullring, it's a pretty sociable atmosphere. You'll talk with whomever is sitting around you, and they're very enthusiastic and friendly, and they'll immediately say, "Such and such a fighter is on the bill" or "These bulls are crap" or "I brought my sons with me because I want them to understand it." The only friendly place I found in Madrid at all, which is quite a grumpy city, was the bullring.

In your experience, does an appreciation for the technical virtuosity and sublimity that can be part of the corrida somehow make it easier to accept that an animal is being killed?

No. If you acquire an understanding of how to put a gun together it doesn't mean that you then particularly approve of somebody shooting someone. It just means you understand more about the mechanics of the process.

How do you understand Spaniards' enthusiasm for the corrida? Why is the kill not problematic for fans?

It's almost an intensification of what you find with any really popular sport—which isn't in any way to minimize the fact that this is a situation of mortal danger, almost certain death for an animal, and possible death for a human being. To call it a sport—it isn't the right word. In Britain, perfectly intelligent people will tell you, "Football is the great game, football is the only game that can sustain my hopes and dreams and feelings of my nationality." There is this use of sport as a kind of religion. When you're looking at bullfighting, you're looking at something which was a religion. It's just a continuation of a religious practice. So there's much more of an emotional charge there already.

People do justify what happens by saying the bull has a great life until its last fifteen minutes. That denies the realities of the bullfight. Maybe they have three years of great life, but quite often they don't last for the five or six years that is always quoted. And then they probably have a complete week that's fairly shitty. A variety of unpleasant things can happen to them. Their horns will almost always be shaved, which stresses them a great deal. They may be boxed up in a way that disorients them. They may be fed salt, which they'll eat without limit, then drink too much water and suffer from diarrhea. Their capture, their transportation, and these various forms of tampering are all very stressful for them. People who genuinely know about bullfighting either ignore the truth—they ignore the tampering that goes on with the bulls—or they believe that the purity of the spectacle is still there, despite the tampering. Even if I were a true aficionado and thought that something that almost always is going to involve the death of an animal were justified, I would want the spectacle to be keeping good faith with its own laws. And it doesn't. I talk about Curro Romero in the book. He's an appalling matador. He has really always been an appalling matador. Even bullfighting journalists who are totally in favor of bullfighting say, "This man is horrendous, this is torture, this is grotesque cruelty." But he still fights, and there are still people who think he's wonderful.

It's a question of whether you want to believe in something and allow it to be what it is, even if that's very ugly. It's the same as patriotism: My country right or wrong. So I can understand how people would believe in bullfighting, even if I can't. What I do see within it that is beautiful is the same thing that you see with this guy Monty Roberts in the U.S., who breaks wild horses without physical cruelty, without using the base of fear. What you see is one species communicating with another with the use of a visual language. In Monty Roberts's case, he's actually trying to communicate; but he's also removing a whole way of life for the horse, he's changing its existence forever. In the bullfight, they're inadvertently communicating. They're communicating in order to have a fifteen-minute relationship that ends in death. But it is still wonderful to watch from that point of view.

Do you think the same sort of religious significance could be attached to the corrida if the bull were never killed?

Yes, because there is always the possibility of the human being dying. Aficionados are always saying that the faena—the final act of the bullfight—wouldn't have full dignity if the bull didn't die. I don't think that's true.

How are the fighting bulls bred?

The ganaderías, where they raise the toros bravos, are basically like game reserves. The bulls very rarely see human beings at all. If they do see people they see them on horseback, so they won't become habituated to the figure of a man on foot. In the bullring they're going to meet a matador who wants them to go for the cape, rather than for him—to view the cape as alive and threatening. So they're left entirely as the wild aurochs would have been, just trotting around, having sex with lady cows, hanging out, going down to the pool to drink.

And aficionados would argue that fighting bulls lead a much more pleasant life than their domestic counterparts?

They do have as wild a life as a cow can have. But there's always a kind of double standard. Aficionados will say, "Have you ever been to a slaughterhouse? It's awful." I've never seen an aficionado picketing a slaughterhouse. I've never seen an aficionado who has complained about farming methods going off and giving a farmer a hard time. They say, "Oh, but this is much worse." Well, why don't they do something about it?

And aficionados will always say that the bullfight can't change. It has changed. It changes very regularly. It isn't remotely the way it was fifty years ago, never mind a hundred years ago. When they started using the peto, the mattress padding that protects the horses, the aficionados said, "Oh, that ruins the bullfight." Actually, that doesn't affect the spectacle at all. It's more popular now in Spain and Europe than it has ever been in its history. It's a multimillion-dollar industry. The matadors are treated like rock stars.

Why do you think it has become more popular?

You have an interesting coincidence that there are six or eight very good matadors right now. And the two top matadors, Enrique Ponce and El Juli, are truly miraculous to watch. The spectacle is as good as it could be if you like that type of spectacle. (Although the tampered, poor-blooded bulls are often disappointing.) And the popularity comes at a time when Spanish culture feels that it's under attack. Most European countries feel that they're in danger of losing their own language to American English, to American culture, to globalization, to conglomerates spreading through Europe. So anything that has to do with individual, regional identity is embraced.

It's a shame that the people who criticize the bullfight don't know much about it. The animal-rights groups don't really seem to have researched what they're objecting to, which kind of undermines their objections. They'll tell you that the matador puts chloroform on his cape. That wouldn't help anybody. The matador would become unconscious, which is awkward when you have half a ton of animal charging at you. Or they'll say that bullfighters stop up the nostrils of bulls with cotton wool. Again, why the hell would you do that?

You said that Enrique Ponce and El Juli were miraculous to watch. Can you put that into words?

There are various distinctions in the styles of matadors. One very crude distinction is between a kind of reaching out to the animal and a more macho domination, almost humiliation of the animal. Enrique Ponce is more communicative, El Juli is more macho.

El Juli is a very strange case. He's eighteen now. (Although his actual age is slightly hard to establish, because he claims to have started toreo when he was of legal age, but may have been younger, perhaps even twelve.) When I saw him he was sixteen or seventeen. He looks very young, and when he shouts you can hear he's very young. But if he's in the mood, he can look truly middle-aged. I saw him one time and he looked about twenty years older than he was, and was doing things that are just suicidal. He really has a sort of death wish.

Is that just reckless showmanship?

No, it goes beyond that. You just see somebody utterly focused on doing something with absolutely no regard for his safety. It's not like watching a daredevil; there's no boastfulness about it. It's very, very serious, which is what makes it chilling. You may well be looking at someone who will die.

El Juli says he's quite fatalistic about it, that if he dies, he dies. He was quite badly gored one time last year. The horn grazed his pelvis and touched his sciatic nerve, and he had a huge amount of pain for a while. It's quite easy for a young man to say, "Well, if I die, I die." I don't think it's as easy to accept being crippled and in pain for the rest of one's life. But he's still fighting, so he obviously hasn't lost his taste for it.

How do the families of matadors come to terms with this vocation? Does the prestige it confers justify the risk?

Some of them like it and some of them don't. Enrique Ponce's wife never watches it live on television. They videotape it, and when he comes home he sits his wife down and tells her everything that she'll see, and then she watches. But it's like anything else that's high risk but brings great money. Quite often the families will be very poor. I suppose the only equivalent now would be boxing, in America. You don't often get white middle-class, comfortable boxers, because it's an insane risk, and they have something to lose. Bullfighters, like boxers, are people who often don't have very much to lose. With boxing, maybe you get brain damage, maybe you get blinded in one eye, maybe you die, but maybe you make lots of money and become famous. With toreo, maybe you lose a testicle, end up walking with a cane, lose a leg, or your life, but maybe you make lots of money and become famous. Bullfighting is also the same as boxing in that very few people make it at all. The people who are actually at the top of the tree—it's a tiny number.

How many?

About thirty or forty would fight very regularly. Around a hundred are listed in the rankings in bullfighting magazines, but you're looking at only ten or fifteen or maybe even just two or three who would be regarded as great. And those guys will fight maybe two, three times a week—which, if you think about it, is just incredible. You're facing death two, three times a week. It's an extraordinary level of stress. Lower down in the rankings, you'd really be hustling to try and get a fight. And you're wearing a costume that costs thousands of dollars, which maybe you've borrowed or hired or saved up for, or it's somebody else's.

So despite the various stages of the fight that weaken the bull, and despite the tampering that might occur behind the scenes, there's still a very real danger for the human being?

Oh, yes. There are certainly very unpleasant injuries every week. Even if it's a very debilitated bull—in fact, especially if it's a debilitated bull. It's one of these strange contradictions within the corrida. They'll try and pacify a bull with a salt diet and so forth, but a weak bull, under stress, with increasing sensation of pain or shock, will move very unpredictably. And what you're relying on as a matador is that it will move predictably and naturally. What you don't want is for it to just stand there, because that makes you look awful. It will quite often also just stand and lash its head, very quickly when you don't expect it. It's a huge animal. Just a tiny flick of its head can put inches of horn in you. Because of the shape of a horn and the way that the bull uses it, you'll get multiple wounds coming off the initial entry point. All those have to be opened out, sewn up, disinfected. It's almost always groin-area wounds. Losing testicles is not uncommon. There are pelvic injuries, sciatic nerve injuries. And if the horn hits the femoral artery, you could bleed to death very quickly. So the infirmary is right there—the puerta del infermeria leads right off the plaza—and there's a full operating theater and a surgeon at the ready.

Do you think this is an interest you're going to pursue further?

I'm a pacifist. But I can't say I don't admire the bravery of soldiers, because they do things that are remarkable. I don't approve of why they're doing them, but that doesn't make them less remarkable. It's a similar thing with bullfighters. I'm not fully in favor of the corrida, but I certainly have a great deal of respect for the people who are directly involved in it. Some of the people who are indirectly involved in it, who feed off it, I have much less respect for.

I don't think I'll go to lots of corridas through my life, but I don't think I've seen my last one. I think it will evolve into something that is better than what it is now—but trying to force it to evolve is the way to ensure that it doesn't.

How do you see the corrida evolving? What forces would need to come into play for it to change?

I think it will possibly become less hooked up on the idea of suffering and death, which I personally think is a distraction. But this preoccupation with death is understandable within the context of Spain's history. Spain has had a very violent history, which you can't really forget. And compared to a spectacle like the Inquisition, the corrida is a nice cuddly, homey thing. I don't think any external pressure will alter it. The movement has to come from within—from the opening up of Spain to other perspectives, and from the natural evolution of what is almost an art form.

The book is written entirely in your voice. Did you conduct interviews while you were in Spain, or did you mainly work as an observer?

I didn't do formal interviews, because it wasn't going to be a book that was based on interviews. I did speak to lots of people, but I specifically made a point of not recording. I think they were more relaxed with me just speaking to them. I wouldn't mind going back and doing a book at some point that was just interviews with personalities involved in the corrida, but that would be a different book.

With the limited space that I had, it was actually impossible to explain the corrida and deal sufficiently with even one matador. Bearing in mind that people in Britain, for whom the book was primarily intended, know nothing about the corrida but are fairly sure that they don't like it, I had to put in an awful lot of background—so that a reader could come to a point where he would at least say, "Well, I still don't like it, but I now know what I am not liking." Or, "I can understand why other people like it, even if I don't." Or, maybe, "Hell, I think I would like it."

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