On July 2nd 1961 the American author and adventurer Ernest Hemingway died when he shot himself in the head and committed suicide.
Amongst other daring exploits and extreme sports such as deep sea fishing and wildlife safaris Hemingway liked Spanish bullfighting and ‘Death in the Afternoon’ is his book about the ceremony and traditions of the ritual sport. It was originally published in 1932 and provides a look at the history and what Hemingway considers the magnificence of bullfighting but also contains a deeper contemplation on the nature of fear and courage.
Hemingway became fascinated by bullfighting after seeing the Pamplona fiesta in the 1920s, which he wrote about in ‘The Sun Also Rises’. In bullfighting he found the elemental nature of life and death and in ‘Death in the Afternoon’, Hemingway explored the metaphysics of bullfighting, the ritualized, almost religious practice, that he considered similar to his own search for meaning and the essence of life.
Bullfighting provokes controversy both in Spain and beyond but despite this it is firmly on my ‘bucket list’ of things I want to do. Although I have not been to a bullfight event I have visited a bullring, at Seville, in 2008.
After Madrid, Seville is the second most important centre for the national sport of bullfighting and the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza is the oldest bull ring in Spain. The origin of modern day bullfighting on foot (rather than horseback) can be traced back to here and Ronda, also in Andalusia. It is one of the most charming bullrings in the country and although its capacity is only fourteen thousand spectators, which makes it rather small (the bullring in Madrid has a capacity of twenty-five thousand), it attracts the country’s finest bullfighters.
In the tour of the museum we learned that bulls from an ancient bloodline are specially bred to fight and Spain is now the only country in the world to preserve this particular species of ‘toro bravo’. They are specifically bred for speed and aggression and during training and preparation they are never allowed to see a man on foot, because they are intelligent animals and it is important that on the big day they have no memories that might spoil the fight by evening up the odds!
Normally six of these fighting bulls are slain in an afternoon or evening fight and the fight involves three matadors with their band of attendants, the picador horsemen who lance the bulls and the banderillos who stab them with barbed spikes. The final act of the three-part corrida involves a series of intricate moves and daredevil passes by the matador before he makes his final lethal thrust between the bull’s shoulder blades.
In 2009 there were 1,345 fights in Spanish arenas, resulting in approximately 6,000 fatally skewered bulls, which is roughly three times as many as there were in the supposed golden age of bullfighting when Hemingway was a spectator in the 1930s. The leading matadors earn colossal salaries equivalent to the football stars of Barcelona and Real Madrid and are the darlings of the Spanish media.
If the spectators approve of the matador’s performance they wave white handkerchiefs to signal to the fight’s president that he should reward him with a trophy, one or both of the bull’s ears and/or its tail. It is called a fight but it is far from fair and the statistics show that in two hundred and fifty years only three matadors have died at the Seville bullring (with improved medical support, the last matador to die anywhere was in 1985) but they have dispatched almost two hundred and fifty bulls a year, so I can’t imagine that a lot of money changes hands betting on the outcome of the competition.