Don Mullen

Irish Times, August 16, 2008

Ernest Hemingway's novel, 'The Sun Also Rises', brought Spanish bullfighting to a global audience. Don Mullan found nothing courageous or edifying on a recent visit to the bullring

AN ENSEMBLE of nine musicians played lively fiesta music for the unfolding drama. The magnificent animal raced into the evening sunlight, relieved to be free from the pen that had imprisoned it and at least five other powerful beasts, before its 20-minute Barcelona finale.

The setting was Plaza de Toros Monumental, built in 1914, a 10-minute walk from Antoni Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia . It was 6.30pm on Sunday, August 3rd last, and I was on an eight-day holiday in Spain. I decided to go and see a "bullfight", erroneously assuming the event, which would feature six bulls in all, would consist of one-on-one contests between bull and matador.

I was surprised to discover the arena less than half full, an indication of the dwindling support in Catalonia and throughout Spain for this national "sport", which is depending more on curious foreigners who want to see some "Spanish Culture".

Outside, a dedicated contingent of protesters, one wearing white clothing daubed in red, stood across the plaza from three queues at the ticket booths.

In the ring, the bull's powerful dash slowed and it appeared momentarily disorientated as the unfamiliar circle offered no escape. A voice in the creeping shadow cast by the western stands drew its attention. The bull stopped, clearly confused, before turning to face its adversary and giving way to its instinct to charge.

There were elements of bravery and grace involved in the movement of two assistant matadors who accompanied the primary matador. Their role, allegedly, is to enable their master to determine the strength of the bull as they goad it to make a number of turns and passes with their pink-purple capes.

The crowd cheered as one assistant caused the bull to turn and pass at least a half dozen times, as it focused on attacking.

To the sound of blaring bugles, the assistants retreated behind wooden safety boards, distracting the bull's attention from the emergence of other assistants and two overweight lance-carrying picadors on blindfolded horses covered in heavy armour. The bull's attention was then drawn to its new adversaries. It assessed the situation before charging at one cape and then another.

Soon the assistants turned the bull to face a rider and horse. Responding to a tug of its reins the unseeing horse unwittingly moved towards the bull, which charged. The beast rammed the horse's armour and the horse showed distress as the bull's impressive strength threatened to topple it.

All the while the picador above made several short cuts in the bull's shoulder area, causing painful agitation and drawing first blood. This, the first of three Acts in the drama, is intended to injure and fatigue the bull's powerful neck and shoulder muscles, causing its head to droop.

After a minute or so, the assistants drew the bull away from the horse, turning it one way and then the other with their pink-purple phantoms, before positioning it again to face a horse and picador for its second lancing.

Blood freely flowed down the bull's shining coat as the bugles sounded the retreat of the cavaliers and the beginning of Act Two. Two banderilleros emerged, each carrying banderillas which, to my eyes, looked like colourfully dressed-up harpoons.

Their task was to engage the bull in a charge and, at the last moment, jump clear while landing both banderillas into the same area where the bull had already been speared, near its spine. This was repeated three times, resulting in six harpoons hanging from the bull.

If a banderillero's harpoon was dislodged he was ridiculed by the Catalan spectators, increasing his determination to inflict a deeper wound on the second run.

By now it was clear the bull was stunned and suffering. Blood was pouring freely below its sagging neck. You could clearly see it convulsing.It shook its back in a futile attempt to extricate the harpoons, all the while inflicting greater injuries on itself due to razor hooks designed to ensure the weapons would not be dislodged.

The final bugle call heralded their retreat and the start of Act Three, emergence of the primary assailant - el matador - who shielded a sword in his red cape.

Here was the "hero" of the evening, dressed in a costume known as el Traje de Luces - the suit of lights.

For six or seven minutes he toyed with the dying animal. The crowd cheered as he goaded the bull to charge. At times he stood a metre or two from the head of the sapped animal. The crowd were ecstatic, especially when he reached forth and contemptuously touched the bull's right horn. The cheering and clapping grew louder as the matador turned his back and arrogantly strutted around.

The moment of reckoning came when the sword emerged from behind the cape. This he exchanged for the "killing sword", a sharper and more lethal weapon, as the bull's attention was, again, distracted by the assistants. Then the matador stood and stared as though he had tamed the powerful beast. The reality was far less glamorous. He was playing with a grievously wounded creature.

The final assault came as the matador distracted the bull with his cape and lunged forward, plunging the metre-long sword deep into the bull, aiming to sever its aorta and accelerate death. In all six killings I witnessed, instant death did not occur.

One of the bulls, after being run through, began to bleed profusely from its mouth and nose. Blood fell in torrents for the last minutes of its life, its tormented cries clearly audible, before its front legs buckled and its body collapsed in a heap of bloodied exhaustion.

The last of the six bulls was defiant to the last. After the killing sword had been thrust, the assistants homed in to cause the bull to accelerate its own demise.

By now it was no longer able to charge. All it could do was move its head in the direction of the tormenting capes, the front half of its body all in liquid crimson.

The matador signalled his assistants to leave the ring. He moved with movements reminiscent of a male ballet dancer. With a grand gesture he stretched forth his arm and index finger and commanded the bull to lie before him and die.

The Catalan spectators willed the bull to collapse, and but for the pain it was enduring, I wanted it to defy him. For an eternal minute the bull and matador faced one another as a harrowing hush descended upon the arena.

The bull rested its head upon the earth, resting for 20 or 30 seconds before it collapsed. There followed a cascade of cheering, applause and fiesta music.

Once the carcass had been dragged out by two horses and the blood raked into the earth, the matador and assistants took their lap of honour. Bouquets of flowers, hats and scarves were thrown into the ring by men and women.

Many were on their feet, cheering and clapping. I sat feeling sick and guilty at having paid to watch such an atrocious spectacle.

As the final matador, Pedro Gutiérrez Lorenzo, "El Capea", and his assistants pranced about, I felt utter contempt. I saw, not heroes, but cowardly butchers who had created an illusion of theatre where the reality had been an astonishingly cruel display of slaughter and animal torture.

Shame on the Coca-Cola corporation for being official sponsors to such hideous "entertainment". Shame on me for backing it with my tourist euro.

Don Mullan is a journalist, author and documentary film-maker

© 2008 The Irish Times

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