By Fiona Flores Watson
There are many topics which cause heated debate in Spain: where the best jamón comes from (Jabugo in Aracena, apparently; I don’t eat meat myself); whether singer Isabel Pantoja will, or should, go to prison for her alleged involvement in the Malaya affair – bribery and corruption in the Marbella town hall; whether Spain will, or should, leave the euro.
Some of these discussions are extremely relevant for those of us who have chosen to live in Spain, while others are less gripping. One moral issue which ignites the passions of those who don’t live here, more than those who do (in my experience, at least), is bullfighting.
As someone who detests all bloodsports (a sentiment born from experience, in childhood), and as a ‘fishetarian’, I have always found it abhorrent. I’ve read Fiesta and Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s books about la corrida (bullfights); interviewed a torero (bullfighter); and been to a bullfight. Having deliberated for years – I arrived in 2003, but it was 2010 before I took a seat in the Maestranza – and endlessly justified my reasons for not going, I realised that, as a journalist, seeing it for myself was unavoidable. So when a friend offered me some unwanted tickets for free, I took them gratefully, at least escaping having to pay to sit through something I didn’t even want to see.
It was a rainy day in Semana Santa and the toreros on show were novilleros (novices); I only managed to watch one of the three – seeing two (of six) bulls killed, messily, was enough, so perhaps it wasn’t the best introduction. There wasn’t much art to it; it didn’t take an expert eye to see that. Getting stern, disapproving looks from aficionados (fans) seated nearby, I marched out declaiming loudly as the second bloodied beast was dragged away by mules after a slow, agonizing death.
But my interest has been rekindled (perhaps now the memories have faded) by a book called Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight, by the English writer Alexander Fiske-Harrison. He underwent training and spoke to many fighters, breeders and others involved in the taurine world, as well as those in the opposite camp. While his arrogance and sense of entitlement grate, you have to hand it to him: Fiske-Harrison has gained access where few non-Spanish authors have managed – to the heart of the fiesta, fighting (and killing) bulls himself, and writing about it compellingly and with fascinating, colourful descriptions and entertaining anecdotes (my personal favourite: full-on drinking sessions and nights of madness with a famous bullfighter).
So here lies the moral dilemma: is it OK to be interested in something you find physically repellent and morally indefensible? In the book, he goes into detail about strategy: why the bullfighter moves his cape in a certain way, at a certain point in the carefully structured stages of the fight, to make the bull perform certain actions. You can’t deny that it’s fascinating to learn about the bull’s psyche, and how the torero has to read the animal from the moment the beast enters the ring – (does he use his left or right horn?); on the farm, bulls never see a person on foot, only on horseback – until they come face to face with the bullfighter. The whole sorry spectacle began to make a lot more sense once I read this, but should I enjoy being better informed about something I don’t approve of? As a journalist who wants to learn as much as I can about every aspect of Spain, its culture, and especially what makes Seville and Andalucia – my (adopted) parish – tick, can I justify it?
Most people who are against the art, sport, whatever you prefer to call it, don’t want to know – or if they do, it’s to support their views of its barbarity, rather than out of curiosity. I found the stabbing, bleeding and killing of the bull – badly botched for both animals at the event I attended – excessively cruel and shockingly gory. Bullfighting is brutal, and personally I’d support a nationwide ban (it’s already been made illegal in Catalonia and the Canary Islands). But it’s also part of Spanish culture, so is it wrong to read about it how it’s done? Especially the psychological aspect, of both bull and man.
Discussions inspired by blog posts about the topic make fascinating reading – in one comment, a reader said that she had been enjoying the writer’s work, until she saw he’d “actually killed a bull” himself, which made her “really angry”. What are the degrees of moral responsibility between supporting bullfighting, attending a bullfight and sticking the sword in yourself? Is it that much worse to be involved, than to watch? Is the audience as much to blame as the bullfighter? When a well-known newspaper columnist came out to Spain to write an article about Fiske-Harrison’s exploits, the trainee bullfighter refused to be photographed with a dead bull (not killed by him) for fear of middle England’s reaction – the stigma is too great, whatever your own personal beliefs. Acceptable to read an animal that’s been killed for sport about over Saturday breakfast? Yes. Acceptable to look at the photos over Saturday breakfast? No.
Personal and professional clash (less) violently in my interest in this oh-so-Spanish pursuit, which turns “a violent death into a public spectacle”, as Fiske-Harrison describes it, making it sound like something from the Inquisition – which, coincidentally, started in Seville. Death, (religious) passion, brutality, danger: all integral to Spanish life. Am I a hypocrite for wanting to delve deeper? Especially since I’m keen never to see another bull die in the ring?
Fiona Flores Watson is a journalist and blogger who lives in Seville and writes for various websites, magazines and newspapers, as well as her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. After nine years, with two bilingual children and an andaluz husband under her belt, she’s still keen to try everything Andalucian, from fiestas to flamenco, but draws the line at bullfighting (in practice, anyway).