Barbaric practice or noble art form?


BULLFIGHTING: RICHARD FITZPATRICKon how just as bullfighting is about to be banned in Catalonia, it is no surprise – given the old animosity – it now has the status of a protected art form in Madrid

THEY’RE UP in arms about bullfighting in Spain. On Wednesday, Catalonia’s parliament, one of several regional governments and home to Barcelona, will vote on whether to ban bullfighting. If successful, which seems likely, given the 67 to 59 vote in December which sanctioned the motion, it will follow in the footsteps of the Canary Islands, another semi-autonomous Spanish region, which outlawed it several years ago.

A generation back, the notion of banning bullfighting, one of Spain’s most synonymous practices, would have been unthinkable. Back then, the anti-bullfighting brigade, or antitaurinos, as they’re known, was a disparate group.

Certainly, there wasn’t a formal movement. Objection to la corrida de toros – particularly in wealthy, arty Catalonia which doesn’t have a strong tradition of bullfighting like in the south or in Madrid – was restricted to the odd, ineffectual barb around the dinner table. For Andrés Amorós, writing Toros y Cultura in 1987, antitaurinos were just “horrified English spinsters”.

For outsiders, the practice of bullfighting, the nuances of its brutal, stylised, archaic ritual are outside their ken. For opponents, it is simply a form of torture. It can hardly be classified as sport as its main participant is an unwilling combatant, or as the cartoonist with El País, Spain’s main newspaper, succinctly puts it: “Nobody is obliged to go to the bullfights . . . except the bulls!”

Reports of it don’t appear in the sports pages. In fact, in Spanish newspapers, it’s reported in the culture section, alongside opera and theatre reviews. Of course, bullfighting, which flaunts incredible bravery and grace, and opens a window, or an arena, on the human capacity for cruelty, has attracted excitement from artistic quarters for a long time.

Goya and Picasso immortalised it in their art. Ernest Hemingway was obsessed with bullfighting; Orson Welles went as far as to have his ashes buried in the back garden of Antonio Ordóñez, a bullfighter. For Lorca, the bullfight was “probably Spain’s greatest poetic and life-sustaining wealth”.

But today it ain’t so fashionable. Polls suggest 70 per cent of people across the country aren’t bothered with it. Antitaurinos include a who’s who of Spain’s actors, fashion designers and musicians. Carles Puyol, FC Barcelona’s captain, a staunch Catalan from a town of 3,000 people, who scored Spain’s winner in the recent World Cup semi-final against Germany, is also among their number.

The comedian Ricky Gervais is an especially vocal opponent, although the antipathy of a gauche guiri (foreigner) like him probably has a counter-productive effect on Spanish sentiments. More tellingly, although King Juan Carlos and his daughter, Elena, are conspicuous fans, Queen Sofia let slip she has no time for it: “Making a bull suffer in the plaza for the public’s enjoyment while a few people do business? Let them do what they want, but I won’t share it.”

It’s split the country as well as royal families. It’s no surprise – given age-old animosities between Madrid and Barcelona – that, just as bullfighting is about to go under in Catalonia, it has been elevated to the status of a protected art form, alongside important buildings and monuments, in the country’s capital. Many Catalans argue it’s a “foreign” custom.

“There are a lot of people in Catalonia who like bullfights. I don’t; I’ve never been to a bullfight,” says Carlos Ruiz Zafón, the Barcelona-born writer whose most famous novel, La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind), is second only to Cervantes’s Don Quixote in Spanish-language book sales, “and there are a lot of people who hate it, and there are a lot of people that don’t really give a shit, who say, ‘If you like bullfighting, go’.

“Bullfighting in many ways is a very strong symbol of what traditional Spain, especially the south of Spain, is about. It’s not a Catalan thing so it’s very easy to target, and it’s very easy to get stuck on both sides: ‘Hey, these people want to ban bullfighting because they hate Spain’, and the other side say, ‘No, it’s because it’s a barbaric practice’, and what they are doing is calling the other people barbaric because they do it.

“It can be argued about, but it’s a tradition. It’s a cultural issue. People say, ‘You’re killing an animal for the purposes of entertainment’, but if you’re going to get into animal cruelty, which, I think, is a very good subject, let’s get serious. We’re killing a lot of captured animals in much crueller ways, on an industrial scale, to feed on them and to do experiments.

“These bulls are killed one day, but their lives, as far as animals go, is excellent. They live on a farm with great room service. They spend their days screwing top models, and then one day they get to a bullring and they’re killed cruelly, and in a spectacle.

“But none of these people get into that debate because it doesn’t have a politically profitable angle – you can’t blame the Catalans or the Spaniards for that because everybody does it. A lot of these things are just self-righteous hypocrisy that you find everywhere.”

These days Barcelona only has one bullfighting arena. It used to have three. One of them, Las Arenas, a magnificent coliseum beside Sants, the city’s main train station, has been turned into a shopping centre.

Significantly, bullfighting’s enigmatic hero, the matador José Tomás Román Martín, who is known to everyone by his double-barrel first name, chose to come out of a five-year retirement in 2007 by returning to fight at the city’s surviving arena, the 19,500-seater Plaza de Toros Monumental. José Tomás is a compelling character. He eschews celebrity, refusing to allow his bullfights to be broadcast and rarely if ever granting press interviews. He bestrides the bullfighting arena with a fearlessness that shocks his peers.

Indeed, he was gored dramatically in Mexico last April, which required a transfusion of 17 pints of blood, twice the amount in his body, to revive him. He’s on the mend and may yet, remarkably, return before the end of the season in September, befitting his Messianic status. When he announced himself in the late 1990s, he revived an art form that had, say its aficionados, fallen into decay. His return in 2007 was a sensation. Touts sold tickets, which at present retail from €23 to €130, for €3,000.

Ironically, the occasion served to galvanise the antitaurino movement who, hitherto a rag, tag and bobtail operation, mobilised 5,000 people to march through Barcelona on the same day in protest. It was their biggest ever public demonstration. Soon after they marshalled 180,000 signatures which, ultimately, led to next week’s parliamentary vote.

Last Sunday evening outside La Monumental, a venue where the Beatles played in 1967, about 20 protesters lined up across the street to do The Hippy Hippy Shake. One man in white clothes was streaked in red paint. After the bullfight, the demonstrators were still there blowing their whistles and vuvuzelas. Six policemen stood around casually as they traded insults with passing aficionados on their way home, possibly, from one of the last bullfights in the city.

Twenty-minute countdown: what actually happens in a bullfight

IT TAKES about 20 minutes to kill the bull. There are three stages to the spectacle, which is quite elaborate. During the first one, the matador enters the arena with his entourage – three banderilleros, a sword carrier and two picadors on horseback.

The arena is circular, like an old Roman gladiator venue, with highly banked seating.

This evening, it is half full, sprinkled with tourists and with as many women, who are fluttering fans to battle the heat, as men, many of whom, with their expensive straw hats, pass the evening rolling chunky cigars around their mouths.

Once the bullfighters have presented themselves to the local dignitaries, the bull enters.

The matador and his banderilleros perform a few passes before one of the picadors entices the bull to charge at his horse, who is protected by a bulky, medieval-style cage, known as a peto, a ruse which enables the picador to lean over the bull and lance him about a third of the way along his back. The charge also gives the matador clues as to the bull’s favoured side.

For the second stage, the matador and picadors depart, allowing the banderilleros to draw the bull into another series of charges, three of which they use to spear him with pairs of coloured spikes, a bit longer than a police officer’s baton, which hang flopping off him like cocktail sticks. A brass band, incongruously, breaks into jaunty music at various stages.

By now, the bull has a red sash of blood streaming down the sides of its body, about two feet wide. If he’s really weak and tired, sometimes his front legs will cave in after a charge, causing him to stumble and fall onto his knees.

You can see him casting around the arena, confused by the flurry of provocations, the underside of his belly heaving from exhaustion.

It’s grotesque. It’s revolting, but it’s difficult not to be captivated by the last, Spartan piece of combat.

For six or seven minutes the matador, alone in the centre of the ring with his red cape, a study in sang-froid, performs his strange dance with the half-tonne bull, inviting him to pass by his body in a series of choreographed manoeuvres, sometimes turning his back to the bull to receive the crowd’s acclaim.

Finally, the foreplay over, the matador goes to the side of the arena to receive his sword, which he points, his arm taut and stretched out, at the bull, a few feet away, luring him into a final charge, which will enable him to stab the bull fatally between the shoulder blades.

Alas, it is not a tidy end. Tonight, of the six bullfights, none, save the last two, conclude quickly.

Some matadors stab the bull too far down his back, forcing them to break off and to try to repeat the murderous blow again a couple of times.

Some end with a banderillero hacking the bull on the ground bucking in spasms, 10 or 12 times with a knife.

Such grubby performances draw hoots of derision from the crowd, who are surprisingly critical.

The last act is always identical, though.

The dead bull is strapped on to two horses.

They pull him out of the arena in a sweep, like they’re dragging a plough, leaving behind a trail of blood and rounds of applause.