A poetic death

Ever since Ernest Hemingway popularized the Spanish corrida in his novel “The Sun Also Rises” (published as “Fiesta” in Great Britain), and his nonfiction masterworks “Death in the Afternoon” and “The Dangerous Summer,” it has been the subject of fierce debate among westerners. There are those who adore it for its pageantry and artistry, and those who abhor it for its savagery and senseless killing.

A recent New York Times article suggests that this debate continues—in Spain, of all places. Although nothing could be more Spanish than the corrida, a tradition that dates back several hundred years, many Spaniards detest it. How can a civilized society support a sport that consists of observing the slaughter of perfectly healthy animals for no other reason than the artistry of it? Yet the corrida persists, second only to soccer as a spectator sport in Spain. Why?

Like other facets of the entertainment industry, the Spanish corrida generates revenue. The going rate for a good seat is comparable to the cost of attending a major league American football game. It is also a large draw for tourism. Travelers to Spain flock to resorts on the Costa del Sol to sample the cuisine and the wine; they tour the ancient cities and marvel at the architectural forms of the Alhambra in Granada and the cathedral in Santiago de Compostella; they frequent the tapas bars in Madrid and sit at table to take in the flamenco dancers; and, if they haven’t seen one before, they certainly don’t want to leave the country without experiencing a corrida.

Most tourists are not aficionados, of course. If you have to ask what an aficionado is, mostly likely you aren’t one. But perhaps more than any other individual, it’s the aficionado who supports whole-heartedly the art of toreo.

During the year that I lived in Spain as a young man, back in Franco’s waning days, I traveled to Pamplona that summer for los sanfermines, those seven days of fiesta-ing that Hemingway wrote about. I remember seeing the bust of him in the street outside the Plaza de Toros. I remember the narrow winding streets hemmed in by the ancient buildings with the wrought iron railings on the small balconies and the crowded bars. But mostly I remember the corrida, the first one I ever saw.

The bulls were big, bred for the ring with barrel-sized necks. Small wonder that these massive muscles needed to be pic-ed and bled to weaken them sufficiently to allow the head to drop down to where the man could go in over the horns with his sword. Were there no corrida, such bulls would no longer exist; the breed would become extinct, entirely unnecessary and useless.

A year later, when I took my new bride to see her first corrida in Alcala de Henares, the birthplace of Cervantes, she hated it and vowed that she would never again set foot inside a plaza de toros—and she was (and remains) a Spaniard.

Two summers ago I returned to Spain, this time with my parents. Although they had never been to Europe before, they adapted well. Months before, when we talked about the trip, I asked my father if there were anything special that he wanted to see or do while in Spain. “How about a bullfight?” he asked. My wife telephoned her sister, who purchased the tickets.

That evening we sat in the front row, adjacent to the barrera, so close that during the fight you could almost reach out and touch the matador’s coleta or the flanks of the animal. It was a standard corrida—two bulls a piece for the three matadors, one of whom turned out to be Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, the same Ordóñez mentioned in the Times article.

Ordóñez performed admirably that afternoon, so well in fact that he was awarded two ears from his second bull. At the end of the evening, they carried him out of the plaza on their shoulders to the admiration and delight of the standing crowds.

I was pleased to read that the current conventional wisdom in Spain is that Ordóñez just might be the one to return bullfighting to its traditional place in the hearts of Spaniards. Bullfighting runs deep in his blood: both his father and grandfather were matadors before him; and his father, Francisco Rivera, was killed in the ring.

Death is the great tragedy, of course. Yet there is something about the man who chooses to stare death in the face, determined to overcome it through the poetry of his art one more time.

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