Monday, October 1, 2012

Reflections On My First Bullfight

"The best bullfight to see first would be a novillada and the best place to see a novillada is Madrid."
                                                                        - Ernest Hemingway, Death In The Afternoon

Having read Hemingway's nonfiction book about bullfighting this summer, I decided to heed his advice and see a novillada in Madrid for my first bullfight. A novillada is slightly different than a regular corrida de toros (bullfight), in that the matadors have yet to become professional bullfighters, and fight bulls that are a little bit younger, from 3-4 years old.

The Parts Of A Bullfight
A bullfight consists of three main parts. As a preface, the bull is released into the ring and the banderilleros (assistants to the matador), along with the matador, test the bull's courage by attracting it with magenta colored capes, called capotes. After a few minutes, the trumpets sound and the first part, called the tercio de varas, begins.

The picadors (men on heavily padded horses with lances) enter the ring. They get the bull to attack the horse, and as the bull attempts to gore the horse, the picador plunges the lance into the back of the bull's neck in order to weaken it and lower its head. The picador leaves the lance in the bull for at least ten seconds, twisting and digging the sharp lance into the neck. This happens twice, after which the trumpets sound and the second part, the tercio de banderillas, commences.

In the second act, the banderilleros take turns running at the bull with banderilleras (colorfully decorated sticks with sharp metal points), one in each hand, and stab them into the bull's shoulders. This occurs three times, and when the six banderilleras have been placed, the trumpets signal for the third part, called the tercio de muerte.

The matador struts into the ring in a brightly colored outfit and red cape (muleta). He makes many passes with the cape, guiding the bull as close as possible past his body, and staying as still as circumstances allow. After ten minutes or so, he stares down the bull, making sure it remains still, and goes in over the bull's horns with the sword, attempting to bury it completely in the bull's neck and cut its spinal cord. A good strike will have the bull on its knees within a minute. When the bull has staggered to the ground, and remains alive, a puntillero approaches the bull with a dagger and pierces the bull's spinal cord to kill it instantly. After the bull is dead, the trumpets sound, and a team of horses or mules come into the ring to drag the bull out of the ring. Six bulls are killed during a bullfight, two by each matador in alternating sequence.

My Experience At The Novillada
As I waited in line to buy a ticket, I asked an old man what ticket he suggest I purchase. This was a good choice, because he told me it was going to rain and got me a seat that was under the roof, but not too high up, with a good view. The ticket costed less five euro, an economic choice.

The opening ceremony began precisely at six o'clock, when the procession of the matadors, picadors, and banderilleros circled the ring.

After the ceremony, the ring cleared and I looked away for a minute. When I looked back, the first bull was already in the ring. He ran around nervously, and tried to go back through the door from which he had entered, which drew laughs from the crowd. The first act of violence against the bull, by the picador, made me tense up and grimace, due to both the bull's horns in the horse and the picador's lance in the bull. The matador did not help the situation, as his first attempt to bury the sword was unsuccessful, as was his second. At last the bull fell to the ground, and the puntillero stabbed the bull three separate times to kill it. It was a gruesome scene, painful to watch, and a good example of a bad bullfight. 

The process began again, though proceeded in different fashion. It was easy to see that this bull was brave. The torero, Mario Alcalde, is twenty years old. His cape work was much better than the first bullfighter's, and he performed a number of successful passes. It began to rain.

Then, in a flash, he was in the air, the bull's horn through his upper left thigh. He fell to the ground and received another wound to his right thigh. The banderilleros managed to get the bull away from him, whereupon he stumbled to his feet and picked up his cape and sword. He would go on with the fight. "Muy valiente," someone said next to me. Losing blood and dragging his leg, he made more passes with the cape. Bent in half and breathing heavily, the red stains growing larger on his white pants, he raised his sword parallel to the ground and stared down the bull. He went in clean with the sword, leaving only the handle showing. A loud cheer erupted, and Mario stumbled to the edge of the ring, leaning on the wooden barrier, waiting for the bull to fall. In short order, the bull fell, the puntillero ended it, and within seconds Alcalde was lifted from the ring and carried to the infirmary, amid a standing ovation and waving white handkerchiefs. Here's an article in Spanish about the wounded bullfighter and the novillada in general.

It being obvious that Alcalde would not return for his second bull, the bull was released into the ring, the first two acts were performed, and then a herd of steers was released into the ring to guide the bull out, to be killed away from the ring. Three more bulls were killed, the whole fight lasted two hours, much of it in the rain.

Thoughts On The Experience
The novillada was certainly the most gruesome thing I've seen, the most difficult aspect being the period of time after the matador drove in the sword and before the puntillero pierced the spinal cord. During this time, the bulls slowly staggered around the ring, sometimes dropping to their knees and getting up again, the matador motioning for the bull to fall. In some cases the bull would cough up a good amount of blood and swoon like a drunk.

At best, the bullfight can be likened to a tragedy, where the spectators know the ending and wait for the acts to be carried out. It is an exertion of man's dominance over animal. Symbolically, the bull may represent man and the bullfighter represent God. We are in a constant existential struggle to survive, trapped in a ring with no way out except on one's back, dragged through the sand. Upon release into the ring after being led through a dark narrow passage, one has the sensation of confused freedom. Soon, the experience of pain narrows one's vision, lowers one's head, and reveals the foregone conclusion. The brave fight despite imminent death— fight to be immortalized by one's actions in the face of death. It is not without reason that the crowd may not only cheer the bullfighter, but also cheer the bull if it displays courage during the fight.

At worst, the bullfight can be said to be a needless act of violence against an innocent animal which results in prolonged suffering and a cruel death. The time and energy of all involved might be put to better use for, well, anything else. It could be said to be a tradition based on cruelty and bloody spectacle, a waste of human potential and a nod to the pessimistic notion that humans are inherently bad and receive pleasure from witnessing destruction.

The truth is probably somewhere in between the two extremes.

Hemingway, what do you think?

"Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honor."
                                                                                -Death In The Afternoon


  1. Hi Jake! My 3 friends and I (60ish year old women from the upper midwest) just returned from Spain - 5 days in Madrid (apt. off of Puerto del Sol) and 9 days in Barcelona. We had a great trip. AND...we happened to be in attendance at this same bullfight! In preparation we had read "Death in the Afternoon" and the amazing bio of El Cordobes, "Or I Will Dress You In Mourning" - it's a must read. So we were prepared for the fight and frankly loved it. I'm wondering if you have learned the fate of the gored fighter. We were able to determine the nature of his injuries and that there was a "poor prognosis", but there's not been an obit, so we're hoping that he's recovering. Do you know? I envy you the adventures that await you in beautiful Spain. To actually visit the Prado, stand in person before Guernica, meander the streets of Toledo - we had so much fun, and Barcelona held even more wonders. Maybe I'll follow you from time to time, but let us know about Mario if you know. Thanks

  2. Hi Sue, thanks for your comment! From what I found, Alcalde is recovering from the wounds and is in no danger of dying. From what I've read about bullfighters, he'll probably even fight again next season! I'll have to check out that biography, I haven't read it. Thanks again for reading!

    1. That's good news - thanks for the update. Enjoy your stint in could you not? And speaking as a Mom, stay safe. Thanks again.