Blood in the Sand

Travel Essay on Bullfighting and Creativity

Theatre and cinema are the only other art forms that demand such grand arenas. Myself and thousands of people crammed into the shady seats of that red-brick amphitheatre of Madrid; here to watch a performance that lies somewhere between art and sport and incorporates the best and worst of the two.

But I’m not a sportsman, so this isn’t about sport.

Las Ventas: largest bullring in all Spain.
Inside the bullring. A rare piece of quiet.

The bullring, for those, the many, who have never been inside, is a very vibrant and lively place even before the corrida starts. In the round corridors and their scenic terraces there are marching bands playing paso doble, crowds queuing up to the bars, chatting loudly, and that’s even before you go to take your seat.

The equipo prepares, rehearse, ease their minds before the corrida begins.
The packed shady side of the arena. The sunny side was not as crowded. Does it argue for a dwindling support for the corrida?

In the arena there is an eerie silence as that before the start of mass. But visually, it is anything but lazy, anything but nondescript. The sand’s bright hues seem to dominate even the blue, fading sky, the arabesque arches of the VIP section, the ornate President’s box, and the bright red barreras from which the matadors would soon emerge – these are the colours of Spain.

And no matter how you feel about it, the bullfight is everywhere in Spain; in its restaurants, souvenir shops, televisions, museums. But this, I find myself thinking, is the real thing.

It is August 15th; back home they celebrate the feast of the Assumption with fireworks and processions. Here, there is also a procession: a procession of matadors, banderilleros, picadors – all dressed as brightly as a stolen star. There is sobriety here too, but one that does not allow defeatism. Las Ventas, her saints today are Roman, Eugenio de Mora and Matias Tejela. Each one of them will be sending to heaven along with the Virgin three Montecillo-bred bulls.

There are two brass bands in the arena that announce the start and end of the three phases of the fight. The first phase, or stage, is the tercio de varas. The banderilleros take on the bull with pink capes, run away and perform some passes, with the aim of letting the matador observe the bull’s fighting style, if he is left or right-horned, if he has any visual impairments, or tendency to stick to an area, a querencia.

The matador Roman takes on the bull in the first stage – the studying phase, where he sizes out his deadly opponent.
At this point the bull is fresh and lucid – he needs a lot of coaxing to attack. Hence the ‘toros’ and ‘ha-has’ from the bullfighters.
The first stage, the tercio de varas, ends with the picadors taking on the bull on their fortified horses.

As this goes on, I too start to study the bullfighters. And I see them as passive artists, though theirs is a most direct of dances. But even so, they are not creators, not writers or painters; they fall into the same categories of art as dancers, actors, musicians, photographers.

Their art flourishes within the parameters provided for them by other artists, be it playwrights, choreographers or directors. Just as an actor brings life to a Shakespearean play, say, so the matador must perform to the script written by history, tradition and passion. These kinds of artists don’t create, they give life. An ironic definition of a bullfighter, I grant you.

Every aficionado will tell you: some bullfighters are better than others.

Now the horses come out. Two picadors stand on either end of the ring, mounted on heavily padded, blindfolded horses. They provoke the bull into attacking the horse, which he does with much resistance but eventually great drive. And once the bull’s horns are buried into the horse’s padding, the picador thrusts his lance into the bull’s hump, his neck muscles, tiring it out, weakening it, and, just as importantly, enraging it.

On two occasions during the corrida a bull, one of them brown and ballsy, tipped over the horse, rider and all, with the strength of its horns. A frightening thing to see one large prey animal force over another. The banderilleros emerge quickly like some civil service men responding to an emergency call, waving their capes at the bull to draw him away from the horse. In the meantime, the bullring assistants have to help the horse back to its feet. It’s unharmed, but with all that padding it couldn’t lift itself up alone. Soon the horses are up again, the picador mounted, and fighting the bull again.

The band plays its music and the picadors dutifully retire from the ring. Now begins the second stage, the tercio de banderilleras. Banderilleros are the men who carry the little barbed sticks – literal translation is ‘little flags’ due to the fact they often carry the colours of the Spanish flag – and must, somewhat comically despite the danger, thrust them into the bull’s hump.

“The banderilleros are clownish figures.”
But he does serious work!

The banderilleros are clownish figures. The way they pose before they charge. The way they run. And the Charlie Chaplin way they run away once the banderilleras are in or in-ish. These are the most passive of performers, though amongst the most athletic, and daring.

Writers aren’t that passive – are they? Their art form demands that they, pardon the horrible pun, take the bull by the horns. Writers can’t wait around for someone to tell them what to write, what to create. They can’t just loll around waiting for the Muse to hurl inspiration at them. And this does not make them, us, any superior to the passive arts like dance and theatre.

For the purpose of art, most art, is sensual: to make its audience feel sensations they wouldn’t feel in daily life. Be it through taste in the culinary arts. Through moving, earth-shattering sounds through music. Or through harrowing, blood-gurgling visuals as those in a bullfight or a play. Writers have a disadvantage here. At least, the not-so-good writers. Theirs is an abstract art, not sensual, more intellectual than gory. It makes people think but, doesn’t a play, a dance, a bullfight?

Now, with the banderilleras in place, making the bull bleed, tiring him and enraging him at the same time, the stage is set for the final, most exciting stage: the tercio de muerte. The third of death. Now, the matador emerges, red muleta and sword in hand. He walks over to the President’s Box, takes off his hat, bows, generally does the sign of the cross to himself, then proceeds to take on the dying, frightful bull.

Now Eugenio de Mora comes out with the muleta and the sword for the final stage, the tercio de muerte.
Matias Tejela sights along the blade – this is the do or die moment, the moment the matador cannot get wrong. Incidentally, Senor Tejela didn’t kill well after this.
But he redeemed himself in another corrida.

Eugenio de Mora, the matador from nearby Toledo, was one of the standout performers on the night. Dressed in white trace de luces, the white bloodied up by the bull’s bleeding haunches (that’s how close they pass), he takes on the bull with passes as if he were a Dalinean configuration. He also had the best kill of the night. When the matador feels the bull is sufficiently tired he sights his sword along the neck of the bull, aiming for the crucial, lethal artery. With his other hand he puts the muleta, the cape, to the ground.

This is the grand finale, a moment of symmetrical perfection the matador just cannot get wrong! Someone in the crowd goes ‘shhh’ and a deafening silence falls on the arena. The matador raises his shoulder, begins edging forward, then, without any gusto or announcement, the bull attacks the muleta, puts his neck down, and in that instant de Mora lunges and thrusts his sword into the bull’s hump and moves away from the close-passing of the horns. For a moment, like lovers almost, the bull and the man become one, it’s an image worthy of Picasso, and when it’s over, there is no time for respite.

The sword might be in. The red hilt the only thing visibly sticking out of the bull’s neck – but has it hit the crucial artery? The bull stands till, frozen, and now he is surrounded by three or four buzzing, worker-bee banderilleros waving capes in the bull’s face, disorientating him, making him dizzy. Eventually, he collapses. Not yet dead. But on the verge, bleeding, panting. Then one of the banderilleros goes up to him, cautiously, takes out a knife, and plunges it into the bull’s skull. The only humane part of the final, gory, hard-to-watch tercio (except when it doesn’t work and the knife has to be repeatedly jabbed into the bull’s resilient skull, much to the jeering of the crowds – that was tough, tough to watch).

Roman reminds us that whatever a matador does he must do it cockily.
Do it with enough style and you might get an ear or two.
Ole! The cry that originates from the cry of ‘Allah’ when Spain was Muslim still.

For Eugenio de Mora the crowd erupts, waving white handkerchiefs en masse, it feels like a revolution now, the downtrodden masses urging on their revolutionary leader – it’s just like Cuba or Nicaragua and the Sandinistas. Eventually the President himself waves a white handkerchief. Inciting a banderillero to go up to the dead bull and cut off two ears to give to Eugenio. That means he got the equivalent of silver. Bronze would have been one ear, and gold would have been the great trofeo: two ears and the tail.

There was another bullfighter who had one of the toughest bulls, the one who refused to die even after repeated dagger stabs to the skull, who got nothing.

But for Eugenio de Mora, a triumphant lap of honour around the ring awaited. Flowers and hats were thrown at him from the crowd, as it all the while applauded, whistled, as if some Hollywood star were amongst them, acting for them – and indeed, this part is reminiscent of when a play comes to a close and the actors come on stage for the final bow!

Though I am not jealous of Eugenio de Mora as he walks triumphantly beneath me – I do not wish to have his stomach for death – I am, as an artist, envious. The kind of passions he’s stirred, how he made his audience fear for his life and worship him, the flurry he’s sent them into, the undiluted admiration he’s elicited: can a novelist ever hope to achieve such guttural admiration? Writing is an art-form that emerges not from bright arenas, but from dark rooms and troubled minds. Can it ever compare, really?

As bull after bull is brought out and Matias Tejela, Roman and Eugenio de Mora take them on in the same three-stage format, the enthusiasm of the crowd never wavers. Afterwards, on the bus journey back from Las Ventas to the Puerta del Sol, I remember hearing some old men telling the bus driver about the fight, who got trofeos, who had bad kills. They were still hungover from the corrida, sad about its ending yet jubilant about having been there.

Few novels can claim such impact on men and women. And those that do, I begin to realise, are the ones who were conceived passively.

Writers can be passive artists, in a way. If their life is rich and sensual enough – they don’t have to conceive their works, but rather their works are choreographed by their lives, their living. Take Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece Under the Volcano and its hauntingly autobiographical nature. Take Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was written in the voice and narrative style of his magic-realist grandmother. Or Hemingway’s (can’t not mention him in a bullfighting piece!) For Whom the Bell Tolls drawn journalistically from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.

There are many great novels not conceived in this way, that needed more imagination and work, and literary-ness. But the ones that can hope to produce something of the visceral reaction of the bullfight must, have to be natural, flowing, easy. A bullfighter doesn’t think of ways to create new passes, new phases, new trophies – he merely fights. This is about survival with flair. It’s enough, no need to be too artsy about it.

Perhaps the greatest literary matador to have lived in recent times was Pablo Neruda. That great liver of life, for whom eating, drinking and love-making where God-given passions that never failed to excite and inspire him. An appreciation and a corrida of life which was reflected in every one of his moving poems. And with Neruda and the likes of Eugenio de Mora in mind, maybe, just maybe, literature can become the visceral, sensual art form it deserves to be!


4 Comments Add yours

  1. vequinox says:

    Exceptional piece. Beautiful. It reminded me the emotions I felt when I attended bullfights in Mexico, back in the ’70s. Yet your take on the whole process makes an art of it, and I very much enjoyed it. Congratulations.


    1. justinfenech says:

      Many thanks! Bullfighting in Mexico – that must be something! Do they use the same rules as in Spain? Thanks for the reblog!


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