Saturday, May 28, 2005

Death in the Afternoon

A short while ago the annual Fiesta de San Isidro was celebrated in the Spanish capital. Similar to Saint Patrick´s Day in terms of both organization and importance, San Isidro is a week long carnival of everything from street parties and free concerts to traditional dress, old customs and ever fading religious undertones. In essence the festival of the city´s patron saint is a celebration of all things Spanish with that certain MadrileƱo twist. Of course given the scale of the event each person usually associates the fiesta with something different. For many the occasion heralds the beginning of a warmer climate, while for others it means the start of outdoor beer consumption and tanned seƱoritas. However despite such delightful markers the festival is in fact most widely associated with the city bullring where there is a week long extravaganza of man against beast.

I must admit my complete failure to comprehend this ancient Iberian fetish with the mighty Toro. It is a fascination that dates back more than 15,000 years when the Altamira caves, often described as "the Cistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art", had a staggering 150 bulls elaborately painted throughout. Unfortunately however this was quite literally the writing on the walls for the horned bovine as the peninsula would never again show him such civilised kindness. The unwitting martyrhood of the bull would soon catch on as in the cult of the mother goddess, Cybele, when in important ceremonies after priests performed self-castration, followers would then lie down and be drenched in blood that poured from a sacrificed bull suspended above. The use of El Toro for religious worship also existed during the time of the Roman Empire when, Mithras, a devine figure who represented the sun was depicted as a young man stabbing a bull. The inititiation rites to the said Mithraism included the sacrifice of the animal while legionaires were annointed in the blood before going to war. Nor did the trend abate when Christianity later arrived to this unregulated religion market. It was at this time common for the competing credes to borrow from each other and Christianity was certainly no exception. And so in a shrewd marketing move, the hard campaigning flock of Jesus cleverly replaced the sacrificial lamb with a BULL.

The modern bullfight as we know it developed a few centuries later with aristocrats fighting from horseback. The various attempts of the Bourbon throne to make Spain more French and European meant the activity then became frowned upon with the wealthy quickly abandoning the sport. However they were soon replaced by the working classes who fought the bull on foot and with sword in hand. It was later temporarily outlawed by a royal decree which only served to increase the popularity of the bullfight. Due to the widespread anti-french sentiment which was at that moment present throughout the land, the Corrida fast became the perfect symbol for conservatives calling for a return to "Spanishness" and a resistance to European progress and Enlightenment. Even to this day the bullfight continues for many to represent the firm stand of the Spanish identity, customs and culture in the face of an ever more politically correct and generic Europe.

Thus having heard and read so much of the infamous Corrida I decided this year to go along and have a look for myself. And so it was that one evening amply numbed by a bottle of 2000 Rioja, washing down many presumably 2004 olives, I and a visiting Meath comrade strided to the stadium shadows in search of a local tout. We had no choice but to acquire the tickets in this manner as we had discovered too late that they go on the sale on the morning of the fight, at which time a reasonable seat (excluding the rented cushion) costs about 26 euros. Furthermore the cunning bargaining skills imparted to us by our elders outside Croke Park did not enjoy a very successful bullfight debut, for which neither the wine nor a want of local haggling lingo was to blame. Rather, having spent our lives bargaining for tickets to the old "roofed" Hogan Stand, we unexpectedly found ourselves thrown off balance by such non Irish terminology as "shaded seats" and "sunshine". Nor did my reference to northerly winds and exposure to rain do a lot to help our price.

On entering the stadium one is immediately struck by the image of a modern day coluseum. This bullring, known as Las Ventas, has a capacity of about 25,000 and is second in size only to that of Mexico city. It is also considered to be the Mecca of bullfighting due to a combination of tradition, great matadors and a highly critical audience such as the die-hards of Section 7. To my surprise the event also seems very much a celebration of the nation state with Spanish flags draped over every possible lamp and ledge of the two tier stadium. However that said, while one would be forgiven for believing that they had come to see a military parade, no amount of red and yellow could ever hide the ironic fact that every brick of the structure was laid in the Moorish style.

At long last I was to witness the sons of Spain who would bravely taunt death with a repotoire of moves so fuid and natural that it would seem but a graceful dance. Painted by Manet and Gris, photographed by Masats and penned by Hemingway, the Matador has down through the years become immortalized, mythical and mysterious to the world over. Feeding on the cheers of the blood thirsty crowd they strut confidently into the ring with an air of arrogance I´d never before seen. The flamboyant attire, El traje de Luces (Suit of Light) rivals any Irish Dancing dress in terms of detail and cost, and just like the Bellewstown Races each has his own colours consisting usually of gold and one other. For those not brought up on the sport this uniform is quite comical. I was especially taken by the standard issue Robinhood tights most likely borrowed from the National Ballet located two metro stops away, aswell of course as the dangerously prevalent pink socks. The better Toreros (Matador), who earn up to 120,000 euros an appearance, marry into aristocracy or pop stardom and divide their professional season between Mexico and Spain. Manolito and Romero are heroes of yester year while the big names of late have been Enrique Ponce and the man who I saw, 24 year old El Juli (615 appearances). Despite his apparently mediocre performance the boyish faced El Juli certainly impressed me with his speed and refined reactions, but annoyed me with the arrogant flick of his head after executing any half decent move.

After the plomp of the opening ceremony the first into the enclosure was the bull himself who sprinted from his box in the belief that he was making his great escape. The hooves and heavy breathing of the beast resounded throughout the stand as the deperate animal pointlessly charged into one barrier after the next. Above the gate through which the bull entered there hung a chart stating the weight of the bull (575 kilos) aswell as his stud of origin. The aficionados take great interest in such information as some farms are famous for the fighting bulls that they breed with bullrings, in what can only be descibed as "dead money", paying up to 3000 euros for only one animal. On this particular night the first of the bulls failed to please resulting in boos and whistles which I can only presume were meant for the event organisers.

Every Matador has his own team known as El Cuadrillo whose function it is to support the bullfighter in the ring. In the opening minutes his 6 Peones distract the bull and attempt to wear him down. They carry capes but not swords and run for their lives to the cover of their barriers each time that the bull approaches. Then joining them on horseback is the Picadore whose towering horse is for obvious reasons buried in armour and blindfolded. However vision or no vision, it doesn´t take long for the horse to realise his situation with his nostrils flapping incessantly as he senses imminent danger. Before long his fears are confirmed when the ever more angry bull charges full speed and head down into the snorting horse, sometimes causing fatal injury. It is at this very moment that the Picadore performs his only task which is that of spearing the bull between the shoulder blades and thus drawing the first blood. His job done he then leaves the sand only to be replaced by 4 Bandallilleros, each armed with two brightly feathered harpoons. The Peones now manouvre and distract the wounded bull as the harpooners choose their moment. Then running head-on at the bull, they make a sudden evasive leap during which they thrust both swords deep between the bull´s shoulders.

It is only now, with eight lances dangling from the back of the animals bloodied neck that the Matador made his long awaited Tony Manero entrance. For the following fifteen minutes he then endeavoured to dazzle the audience with his unshakeable composure and lightning speed reactions. Accompanied by the sporadic bursts from a brass band hidden somewhere in the stands, the bull charged, twisted and bucked to no effect. Again and again he bounded for the red cape only for it to disappear and reappear about the body of the dancing bullfighter whose every move was greeted with the gasps and cheers of the spectating mob. As I watched on I surprisingly found myself rooting for the opposition while it suffered an unjustly slow and sadistic death. I found myself suddenly confused by the use of the word "fight" as the only image before my eyes was that of one-sided torture and sacrifice. As I observed my fellow patrons, I was struck by the perfectly matching colour of a 3 year old´s ribbons with the colour of the much less innocent sworded cape being waved before us in the ring. Moments later, only when the apetite of her parents and peers seemed satisfied, did the pompous Torero finally slide the sword from within his cape and just as his team had done before, embedded the sword just below the neck the of the bull. There and then the speared animal was stopped in his tracks as he finally realised his approaching fate. Blood gushed from is mouth before he collapsed to his knees, and seconds later to the sand. Having waved to the crowd and reminded himself of how great he is, the Matador then strutted over to the bull and pushing a dagger into the toro´s forehead, finally put the poor animal out of his misery. In the event of a truly excellent perfomance taking place, the Matador will be awarded either one or both of the bull´s ears . Holding the dismembered trophies aloft, the fighter circles the enclosure as the spectators hail down, "Torero! Torero!" In the very rarest of cases, when the fight witnessed is one that will go down in history, the Matador is also awarded the tail and carried out of the plaza on the crowd´s shoulders. The boy wonder, El juli has already been awarded 1037 ears in his short career to date.

A typical evening programe will consist of three Toreros who each fight two bulls. This means that as soon as one bull falls, preparation for the next fight begins. With the efficiency of Wimbledon ball boys ropes are thrown around the horns of the warm carcass and leaving behind a trail of blood, they drag the bull out with the aid of belled horses. The scamble then continues as lines are repainted or swept and bloodied sand is raked or removed so as to help us momentarily forget the butchery that we had just witnessed. And then the slaughter starts all over again.

It is very true that I have an over zealous tendency to love all things Spanish although perhaps at long last this unconditional love has finally been put to the test. Bullfighting is something that you must be reared on which I certainly wasn´t and so I was completely ignorant of the display of El Juli´s old fashioned technique combined with modern moves . However what I did see was that the Corrida is not the death defying event that I was led to believe. While I myself would not stand in front of a bleeding bull of the same height as myself, I note that the tiring animal is already mortally wounded before the caped crusader even steps foot on the sand. I also observed a changing Spain as from what I could make out the crowd was predominantly made up of pensioners and nappy wearing grandchildren. Of my Madrid friends I know of only one who would consider himself to be a true fan of the bullfight. The rest have generally been only once as children and having done nothing but cry they have never felt the desire to return as adults. It is therefore surprising when talking to people about the bullfight that most show a complete indifference. While they do not like to watch the activity themselves they quickly recognise that it is an age old tradition and part of their heritage. One such student opined that the general foreign attitude to the sport would no doubt be very different had it originated in France, in which case we would all be fans.

But for me the bottom line is that Las Ventas is not Croke Park, Section 7 is not Hill 16 and the bull is no Mick Lyons.

(August ´05, Comment from Argentina)

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