The pleasures and the pain

Christopher North speaks to the fearless Andrés Roca Rey, Peru’s first bull fighting star

Sol y Sombra

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

‘‘World’s worst matador fails again” was the Sun’s unintentionally hilarious headline in September 2016. “Useless teen bullfighter gored for fifth time in his first five bouts”.

The subject of the article was Andrés Roca Rey, arguably the best torero in the world, and unarguably the most popular. He was then 19 and in his first season as a full matador — fearless, frenetic, blood-soaked and beautiful.

Spain’s afición was already craning forward, wondering whether the Peruvian newcomer would be the next messiah. Plenty of young toreros — plenty of teenage boys in general — disdain their physical safety. But Roca Rey was no thrill-seeker. His repertoire with the capote (the pink and yellow two-handed cape) was dazzling.

He kept being tossed because he was trying to find the point of maximum artistic value — the point where the horn-tips were almost plucking the braid from his trousers, so that man and animal presented a unified tableau.

Roca Rey compounds extraordinary physical courage with painstaking technique

Roca Rey compounds extraordinary physical courage with painstaking technique, offering his audience an illusion of effortless grace. The word critics most commonly apply to him is “entrega” which, in everyday Spanish, means “delivery” but in this context, means a torero’s total commitment to his art. If you are new to bullfighting but have a decent aesthetic sense — if you want to have your heart in your mouth, not just because of the danger, but because of the associated plastic beauty — he is your man.

Interviewing Roca Rey for The Critic, I began with that old Sun headline. Could he explain to a British audience why being repeatedly gored (as he still is) does not suggest clumsiness?

“It’s all about entrega,” he says. “If you commit yourself one hundred per cent to another person, you can get more out of the relationship, but you can also get more badly hurt. It’s the same in the arena.”

Roca Rey comes from a taurine family. Some were toreros, others were involved with the management of Lima’s gorgeous eighteenth-century bullring, one was a breeder. Many Peruvian aficionados were familiar with his surname before he was born. Was he fated to follow the craft? “Nope. It’s true that lots of my relatives are involved, but one of my brothers takes no interest in bulls at all. It’s about how much you want to sacrifice.”

So what makes a boy born around the turn of the millennium, with electronic devices to distract him, pursue such a gruelling profession? “Precisely that: the sacrifice. I’m not just talking about risking your life in the ring, but the dedication, the training, the hours.”

About those regular tossings, then. Do they change his style? “My style is constantly evolving, but my philosophy stays the same: total seriousness, total entrega. You adapt to different rings and different crowds, but your soul is always free. Never mind the triumphs, the gorings, the pain — pain in your bones, pain in your mind.”

Peru has never before produced a world-class matador. Venezuela had Girón, Colombia had Rincón, Mexico had Gaona, Armillita and Arruza, France has Castella. Yet strangely Peru, with an older and nobler taurine tradition, never made the premier league. “It’s just luck,” says Roca Rey, with the mandatory modesty that all toreros adopt when talking of their fellow professionals.Roca Rey compounds extraordinary physical courage with painstaking technique

Latin American crowds are loud and involved; Spanish crowds demanding; French crowds respectful and patient

Forgive me, maestro, but that’s bollocks: it has nothing to do with luck. “Well, circumstances, then. I was able to break through in Spain.” Nah, sorry. You have the kind of ability that comes along once in a generation. But talking about Spain, would you say their afición diverges from Peru’s? Do you get applauded for different things?

Roca Rey compounds extraordinary physical courage with painstaking technique. Eventually, I get him to admit that there are differences: Latin American crowds are loud and involved; Spanish crowds demanding; French crowds respectful and patient.

Which of the heroes of the past does he admire? “Belmonte, Joselito, Manolete, Dominguín.” I’ve written about Belmonte and Joselito before (Sol y Sombra, June 2020), and I’ll get to the other two soon enough. Suffice it to say that this is like a cricketer saying “Bradman”. Oh, well, ask a traditional question . . .

Or was there a suggestion of something else? Was the young Limeño, with proper and natural modesty, hinting at the hugeness of his ambition? For, if he continues on his present trajectory, Roca Rey will be the first non-Spaniard to join that Homeric list, cited by shy young toreros in the future. You read it here first.

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