Death in the Afternoon: Domingo de Roma Bullfight

Attending a bullfight was not something I really had high on my list for things to do in Madrid, but last weekend I was traveling in and around Pamplona in the north of Spain, which has one of the most famous running of the bulls festivals each year. It’s also the setting on one of my favorite Hemingway works, The Sun Also Rises, which I reread last week after visiting the city. So when my friend Robert mentioned he was planning to go to a bullfight this weekend, I was interested. And so I joined!

ImageI had no idea how I would react. I knew there would be blood and death – of the bulls surely – which my immediate assumption is to find cruel and unnecessary. But I also have a deep respect for cultural traditions and different ways of life, no matter how odd I find them or how difficult my reactions to them may be. I’m also incurably curious about these things. It’s the reason that I ask people a million questions about their lives and their countries, and what they think about different things. It’s the reason I took a week during one of my stays in Ghana to live exactly as the children did – eating only what they had, putting aside my laptop, movies, and books, even sleeping on the concrete floors. It’s why here in Spain I decided to live with a host family and have tried a few dozen (sometimes irresponsible) things I otherwise wouldn’t have at home. To go to the bullfight seemed just another addition.

I was curious. And so I started reading a book Robert suggested to me: Death in the Afternoon, a (really long) non-fiction piece by Hemingway about the bullfight in Spain. (If you’re interested, the first five chapters are enough and they’re the smallest portions of the whole). There was lots of useful technical stuff in it. From it, I learned that the festivities would include six bulls which have been raised for this purpose, and carefully chosen for this day; the different actors in the ring, including the three matadors (or killers), the picadors, and the rest of the team, and all the different roles they play. I basically got a sense of how the afternoon would go, as well as the significance and importance of it. But mostly, I found only all the more reason to go, after reading this: “So in bullfighting, at the start it is the picturesqueness of the paseo, the color, the scene, the picturesqueness of farols and molinetes, the bullfighter putting his hand on the muzzle of the bull, stroking the horns, and all such useless and romantic things that the spectators like… But as with wine, you will know when you first try it whether you like it as a thing or not from the effect it will have on you.”

ImageSo Robert did some more research, asking friends the best times to go and the best places to sit. We went to the Las Ventas bullring in Madrid. The festivities were for Domingo de Roma – Palm Sunday, and it was a gorgeous and sunny Sunday afternoon. We got Sol y Sombra seats in section 7, which we were told is the best option because section 7 is where “true fans” sit. And that was absolutely right. Our section was packed. There were a handful of tourists – ourselves, a German family behind us, and a Japanese couple below us. But to my left was a small, wide-eyed Spanish man surely old enough to recall WWI and loving every second, looking like he just fit right into this Spanish institution. To Robert’s right was a middle aged Spanish man yelling every time he was displeased (particularly with what was apparently an awful picador and a couple weak bulls), whistling every time he was enjoying it. Farther up behind us were a couple more people like him. It was a cool vibe with the crowd, the trumpets and music, and the other pomp and circumstance. In the process, there were six bulls, but one was deemed too weak and replaced for another. ImageOf the three matadors, one was excellent – given a standing ovation of waving handkerchiefs, and he and his team a victory walk around the ring. One matador was unfortunately pretty bad, so because of his lack of skill, the bull suffered more than necessary, taking more than a few swords and thirty minutes to fall, so that was more difficult to watch.. All in all, it was an interesting afternoon and I think we got a good idea of what bullfighting is and what it means.

I was surprised, after it was finished, to find that I did like it. It wasn’t malicious, but rather beautiful. It was hard to watch at certain points, and I definitely cringed and looked away in those moments – particularly when the horses the picadors ride were attacked, finding that indeed needless and cruel. I must admit, I also teared up and started shaking a bit when one of the matadors was severely gored and had to be carried out of the ring. I did feel bad for the bulls, but saw the beauty in what Hemingway describes as a simple tragedy being played out in the ring between a man and beast, as well as the authority in his claim that the bullfight is more than a sport because the goal is not to avoid defeat, but to avoid death, and the fascination is in the nearness of death, not just victory.

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