Sometime back in the early 1970s my family and I were holed up in a grand old hotel in Alicante having missed the flight home from a two week package holiday.
We weren’t stranded for long – it was Sunday and funds couldn’t be wired until the following morning. I know this because bullfighting was the only thing available on TV – the experience was indelibly etched upon my mind.
The hotel’s crackly black and white set was being used as an electronic babysitter while my increasingly fractious parents planned our escape. For a six-year-old accustomed to little more shocking than Scooby Doo, it was an insight way beyond the sun, sea, and sombreros of the previous fortnight and into a national psyche and cultural identity I instantly identified as being far different from my own.
Except that almost 40 years on, Bullfighting is being banned in Catalonia. Now Spain – the last place on earth you’d expect to find compromise over its character – is becoming more like everywhere else in Europe. I’m not entirely sure this is a good thing.
In July this year, the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia agreed to ban bullfighting. Centred on Barcelona, the province has played host to many of bullfighting’s most celebrated contests. However, Catalan Deputies voted by 68 to 55 in favour of a people's petition calling on the bullfight to be banished. The last matador will sink his sword into the last half-tonne fighting bull at the end of next year, with a complete ban starting in 2012.
If the Corrida stoked controversy before, the Catalan ruling has done anything but extinguish the argument. Across Spain (but mainly Madrid), critics bandied accusations of barely-disguised, political motives. “This was a way for Catalonia to undermine Spain’s national identity,” they bellowed.
It’s an indictment that Dr Salvador Giner, head of the Catalan Studies Institute in Barcelona vehemently denied. "The issue is a moral one, not a nationalist one," he said. "Bear-baiting was suppressed long ago and this is the same logic. Are we a modern nation, or are we going back to the middle ages?"
The Irish novelist and critic Colm Tóibín believes it runs deeper than that: “When I came to Barcelona first in 1975, I found that Catalans would wince at the very word bullfighting and seemed genuinely upset that such a cruel sport took place in their city. For them, the corrida belonged to a world foisted on Catalonia by Franco at the end of a civil war.”
Now, I find the needless suffering of animals as repellent as the next man – not to mention the oppressive brutality of Franco. But there’s something about the ritualised performance of bullfighting that transcends this. From Goya to Picasso, Spain’s artists have fed on the corrida’s themes of gore, tragedy, and passion. They eulogised its savage beauty – with good reason. The final scene of victory and death along with the preceding elements of plot, theme, character, language, and rhythm certainly fulfil Aristotle’s half-dozen elements of drama.
A balletic matador dressed in a revealing outfit so ornate and flamboyant that even Liberace would have winced, pitted against an animal almost ten times his own weight? The conceit is undoubtedly poetic (if not suicidal), but so far the odds are stacked in the bull’s favour. The matador is armed only with a brightly coloured cape, and a thin sword, again even-stevens with the bull’s equally keen and lethal hardware.
In fact, Matadors are frequently injured by bulls and 52 have been killed since 1700 – including the legendary Manolete who was gored in 1947. Widely considered to be the greatest bullfighter of all time, his style was sober and serious. Manolete’s USP was his technique and icy excellence at the 'suerte de matar' – the kill, but his prowess wasn’t enough to save him in the end. The skull of Islero, the bull that killed Manolete is hung on the wall of the Restaurante Parrondo, in Madrid.
A balletic matador dressed in a revealing outfit so ornate and flamboyant that even Liberace would have winced, pitted against an animal almost ten times his own weight?
Compare Manolete with Ronaldo – a similarly flamboyant footballer of Real Madrid, being disemboweled in the 18-yard box after giving defenders the runaround just once too often…
The balance is slightly tipped in the matador’s favour by his six henchmen – two picadores mounted on horseback, three banderilleros, and a mozo de espada who collectively soften the bull up. Seven men against a single animal sticks in the throat of some people, especially when they take turns to stab the beast between the shoulders with colorful barbed skewers and pikes.
He may not always have been the most sober of commentators, but Ernest Hemingway’s 1932 book Death in the Afternoon is a levelheaded exoneration of the corrida – and this from a man as diametrically opposed to Franco as any Catalonian. After contemplating the nature of fear and courage and what he found to be the magnificence of bullfighting, Hemingway wrapped it up thus: "anything capable of arousing passion in its favor will surely raise as much passion against it."
Spanish writer and journalist Miguel-Anxo Murado sees both sides to the argument. Writing in British newspaper The Guardian after the Catalonian ruling, he wrote:
“Aficionados say that the fighting bull would disappear as a species were it not for the fiesta, but they lose it when they try to prove "scientifically" that bulls don't suffer. Conversely, environmentalists are correct when they say bullfighting is cruel (even Himmler, the head of the SS, fainted at a corrida in Madrid in 1940). But I think they are wrong when they insist that there can be nothing artistic about it. What they mean is that art has to be moral, which is more than debatable.”
Old habits die hard but traditions do become obsolete – just look at fox hunting. This became illegal in the UK in 2005 with few mourners and few supporters outside Britain’s aristocratic elite. But Bullfighting is suffering a slow death in Spain, says Murado, in spite of its former mass appeal. State-run Spanish TV cancelled live coverage of bullfights in August 2007, stating that coverage was too violent for children, soaring production costs, and plummeting revenue from advertisers.
Murado recounts that his father’s barber gave his customers a choice of conversation: football or bullfighting, he says. “The choice became overwhelmingly the ball, not the bull.”
Personally, for the sake of all six-year-olds waylaid on their homeward journey, I mourn the passing of this eccentric and macabre event. It beats Scooby-Doo anyday.