New York City/Barcelona, Spring 2004
I am about to embark on my first visit to Spain. Destination: Barcelona. I am traveling with two friends. We are going for a little vacation but also meet up with my friend’s sister and her colleague who had been in Spain for the past six weeks, taking Spanish language classes. Since I have a great interest in Spanish history, art, music and culture, I know I have to see a bullfight.
Yes, it’s because of Hemingway. I freely admit it. I never had a passionate interest in it, per se, but the corrida is something attached to my childhood. I remember my father watching them with great pleasure when they used to broadcast them from Mexico over Channel 41, the Spanish language station in New York City at the time. By now I have already devoured Hemingway’s two books on the subject, Death in the Afternoon and A Dangerous Summer. These two books piqued my interest in actually seeing a corrida up close and personal, as I’m sure it did for most Hemingway fans. I don’t care what we do once we get to Spain. Just being there is enough but I make it clear that no matter what we decide to do, I’m going to a bullfight. My friends don’t have to join me if they don’t want to; and since we’re only going to be there for one Sunday out of the week, there’s only one chance to see one.
We are staying at the Hostel Opera in the heart of the old city, right off Las Ramblas, in a cheap room which costs us seventy-five euro a night. No frills — just three beds, two dressers, something that passes for a desk and a bathroom. No view to speak of. However, I don’t mind but my friends aren’t all that thrilled with it. No matter. We didn’t come all this way to stay in a room.
The city beckons.
I learn we arrive during San Jordí, which for book lovers like myself, is an added bonus. My mind is still on the upcoming bullfight and I’m getting the impression that my friends are not so interested in going. I’m determined, even if I have to go by myself. I note the date and time, reiterate that no matter what’s on the agenda, Sunday afternoon I’ll be attending. They’re still thinking about it. “I don’t understand why you want to see such a thing,” my friend says. I explain that I have to but I don’t go into details. They tease me about it being about Hemingway. I tell them it’s more ‘cultural curiosity’, that I’m not exactly a ‘fan’ of it. I just want to experience it. I explain that my father used to love the corrida, how he used to make me watch it with him when I was a boy. It’s for this reason, more than Hemingway, that I want to go.
The Moment of Truth
Sunday arrives and we set out for the Plaza de Toros Monumental on a humid, somewhat rainy afternoon. The arena is a beautiful Moorish design. It looks more like an old mosque than it does an arena. The streets surrounding it are lined with palm trees. The arena is in the modern part of town, unlike the old, narrow, labyrinthine streets around the hotel. If it weren’t for this huge, Moorish designed arena, the area could have been any other European city.
Along the way, I kept telling my friend that this is the real deal, that I am surprised that she’s willing to see it. I explain that they are going to kill this bull, that she is going to watch it being killed — or even perhaps the matador if, God forbid, something goes wrong. I’m not sure if she’s listening to me. I tell her that I want to see, more than anything else, if it was anything close to how Hemingway described it in his books: as an art form, the symbolic staging of man confronting death, and all the rest of it. I have my doubts, of course. I’m expecting a bloodbath and to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about it. However, in the back of my mind, I thought of my father, wondered what he would have thought had been alive to know that I was going to see one.
We buy our tickets — at twenty-five euro apiece — to sit in el Sol, that is, the seats that are out in the open and not shaded. The shaded seats are more expensive. I expect it to be crowded but there are no lines. In fact it seems only tourists are coming up to the ticket booths. The only locals I see are old men, those who look as if they’d been coming to the corrida all of their lives.
Then I see something which gives me a clue as to what the modern view of the corrida is. Graffiti — and it’s everywhere: on the arena’s walls, on the sidewalks in front: ‘This is not culture!’ ‘Down with the corrida!’ ‘Ban bullfighting forever!’ but I’m not interested in the politics of it all, although I understand it. I just want to experience it. Whether I wind up liking it or not is irrelevant.
With tickets in hand we enter the arena and I’m immediately hit with the smell of death — a highly pungent, acrid smell: blood, decay, entrails. Blood streaks across the concrete floors that lead to the stairways to your assigned seats. The stench is overwhelming. I have to hold my breath for a moment. It smells like a slaughterhouse. Only then do I see the room where the dead bulls are dragged into after each fight. There is a young man in there, peering out at us through the open door. He quickly closed the door once he sees me taking a peek inside but before he does I see the dead bulls hanging by their feet from chains. I later learn these bulls are butchered and the meat is eventually given to the poor. Nevertheless, this overwhelming smell of death is not a good sign of what is to come.
We locate our seats, about half way up the arena. Inside, it looks like any other arena except the seats are not the kind of seats you’d find in an American stadium. They are long concrete slabs, each ‘seat’ numbered in yellow stencil. The rows are so narrow that had the arena been full, there’s a good chance I’d feel someone else’s knees directly on my back. The arena is far from full. It’s not even half-full and those in attendance are like us — tourists and perhaps some other Hemingway aficionados who also want to experience the corrida for themselves. Settled in, I’m ready for anything.
The fanfare begins. The picadors, banderilleros and the matador’s ‘entourage’ enter and walk around the ring. The matador makes his entrance, removes his hat and bows to the sporadic applause. He’s young, merely a kid. He can’t be more than twenty-one years old. Small, slight. The bull is let into the ring, a huge beast, nearly three times the size of any of the men in the arena. Compared to the young matador, he’s as big as a freight train. The matador ‘tests’ the bull to feel it out, to judge its strength, bravery. The picadors comes out, on horseback, carrying lances. The bull immediately charges the horse and begins slamming his horns into it, forcing the horse up against the wall, literally lifting the horse off its feet. The picador plunges the lance into the bull’s neck. Blood begins to pour. My friend looks at me, tears forming in her widened eyes. “I can’t watch this!” she says and immediately gets up, followed by her sister. I think, this is it, it’s over, and it had barely begun.
“You can stay here if you want,” my friend’s sister says. “We’ll be outside. Just meet us out there when it’s over.”
I decide to stay behind. If I know better, they’ll find a nearby café serving churros and chocolate. They’ll be fine. I continue to watch, try to disconnect myself from the butchering of this poor animal, try to remain impartial, try remember what I read in Hemingway’s books. It’s not easy. Perhaps I don’t fully understand it. Perhaps I do and that’s the problem.
By the time the matador comes out the bull is barely able to stand, wobbles on its feet. Blood is streaming from its neck, pouring down its back from where the banderilleros had jammed their banderillas. The matador begins to guide the bull with his cape, the idea being to bring the the bull as close to his body as possible, to dominate it, control it. It is only during this phase where I can see the artistry, the elegant moves, passes, the bravery. To be this close to a raging bull, mere inches from its horns, that takes balls. At any moment something can go wrong, the tables can turn. However, I also recognize that the bull is severely weakened. Would the matador get this close were it not? The bull’s horn is as long as the matador’s forearm, nearly as thick. One wrong move and it’s over.
The moment of truth. The matador is ready for the kill. He turns to the audience. There is sporadic applause from the crowd. I look around. There’s hardly anyone in the arena. I wonder what goes through the matador’s mind as he looks around the empty arena. Is this how he imagined things would be?
He turns his attention back to the bull, which continues to wobble on its feet, barely able to stand. He lines up his sword. He’s got to place it quickly, precisely in order to kill the bull instantly. It must go in over the horns. The bull is twice his size. If something goes wrong, he’s a dead man.
The moment arrives. The bull charges and knocks the matador on his ass, circles around and gallops towards him, head down. The matador’s team immediately come running out, distract the animal, guide it away from the fallen matador so he has a chance to get back up on his feet and try once more. Again, the moment of truth. This time the sword goes in but it doesn’t sink into the bull’s flesh. It’s merely stuck there, quivering back and forth as the bull tries to shake it from its neck. The audience begins to boo, howl, mock the matador. On the third try he succeeds. A stream of blood pours from the bull’s nostrils and it looks around, confused, probably aware of its own impending death. After a few moments, it collapses into the sand, falls to it’s side. One of the matador’s team cuts it’s throat. More blood.
The matador bows. The audience boos. The reason for the booing is because the kill is supposed to happen quickly, instantly. This guy essentially butchered the animal to death.
The torero walks off to a chorus of boos, insults. The bull is hooked up to a carriage which then drags it around the arena, leaving a trail of blood in the sand.
I stay for one more fight. This time, the matador kills the bull on the first try, however this bull doesn’t suffer any less than the first.
I leave the arena to the amused looks of the ticket agents outside. So soon? They probably look at all the tourists that way whenever they see them leaving the arena before the corrida is finished. I enter the plaza, see my friend and her sister walking towards me from across the street. They had indeed found a café where they serve churros and chocolate.
“Is it over?” my friend asks.
“No, there’s still a couple of more matches,” I say, “but I think I’ve seen enough.”
“Did you like that?” she asked me.
“It’s not a question of whether I liked it or not. I just wanted to experience it,” I say.
As we head back to our hotel, I keep thinking about how differently it all seemed up close and personal than it did when I used to watch it with my father on television all those years ago. When you’re seven years old, blood and guts are a ‘cool’ thing to see, especially if you’re a boy. At the time, I didn’t see it any differently from watching a boxing match. It’s quite a different matter as an adult. As much as I tried to watch it for it’s supposed artistry, in which there was some, all that blood, the confused look on the bull’s face was a stark reminder of what had actually taking place. As much as I tried to remain detached, tried to witness it for what it was supposed to be, I had a lot of conflicting emotions about it all and I didn’t understand why. I should have been appalled but I wasn’t and I didn’t know what this meant. What did this say about me?
“Would you ever go to another one?” my friend asks.
“I don’t know. Maybe,” I say. “I’m not sure.”
“Well, if we’re ever in Spain again, next time you’re going alone.”
Somehow, I didn’t doubt that.