The final frontier

Christopher North says bullfighting thrives in a culture where death is discussed, not hidden

Sol y Sombra

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Catholics are peculiarly morbid. That, at any rate, struck me as the most plausible explanation. It must have been 15 years ago, and I was with a group of English-speaking aficionados learning hands-on capework in the breeders’ practice rings around Salamanca.

We were a mixed group — three Americans, two Scots, a Dutchman, a German and an Irishman — all of us bloody-minded enough to embrace an art-form reviled in our own countries. But, given our nationalities, there was a statistically bizarre absence of Protestants. We weren’t all observant, far from it; but we all came from a cultural milieu in which death is marked and discussed rather than hidden and euphemised.

To watch a bullfight was to see death in all its aspects

When I got home, my shins bruised black from the flats of the heifers’ horns, I ran my morbidity thesis past an aficionado friend who was also an ordained priest and a Dominican friar. His vow of poverty had never been any impediment to his watching bullfights. On the contrary, touts would rush to give the padre inglés free tickets, and toreros would ask for a blessing, no man on earth being more devout, or more superstitious, than a bullfighter in the hour before the corrida.

My Dominican friend liked my theory. The bullring, he said, was the only place on the planet where one could still be treated to a complete disquisition on mortality. To watch a bullfight was to see death in all its aspects: glorified, scorned, risked, sought, escaped and, ultimately, dealt. His Protestant friends, he told me, were curiously incurious about the whole subject.

Death. That awful and inescapable fact lies at the heart of the corrida, as it lies at the heart of all great art. When you take your seat in the plaza, you are guaranteed six deaths — those of the animals. Some deaths will be braver than others, some sadder, some slower; but none will be squalid. 

What, though, of the deaths of the men? If the bull’s death is a tragedy in the dramatic sense — a study in hardship with a preordained end — the torero’s is a tragedy in the vernacular sense — a terrible event. The first is ritualised and ineluctable; the second a rupture in the natural order. And yet the balance and poetry of the rite depend on the second being a constant possibility.

Constant, yet remote. Today’s bullfighters have had more practice than any previous generation, spending years in taurine schools before they appear in public. There have also been huge advances in medicine, not least in trauma treatment and blood transfusions. 

Many Spanish bullrings feature statues of their famous sons. But Madrid’s, paid for through subscription by toreros themselves, does not honour a bullfighter, or even a Spaniard. It honours the discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming. Before the Scotsman’s bust stands a nameless bronze torero (above) raising his hat in dedication, his faced fixed in an expression of such sombre gratitude and humility that it sometimes moves me to tears.

In 1984, a matador called Paquirri, a member by marriage of the most famous bullfighting family of all time, the Ordóñez dynasty, was killed in Pozoblanco, prompting legislation which made ringside intensive care units compulsory. One of the matadors who had appeared with him that day, “El Yiyo”, died in the ring 11 months later, the bull’s horn cleaving his heart in two.

For a long time, that was it. A banderillero was killed in Seville in 1992 as he placed the sticks — then nothing. As the shadow retreated, aficionados began to fret about the equilibrium of the fiesta. No one liked to say it out loud. And, obviously, no one actively wished death upon any professional. The anxiety, rather, was that, without a fatal goring being a vivid presence in the minds of the public, toreo would lose the intensity that lifts it above the run of human activities.

Loathe the spectacle if you want, but it remains, as the poet Lorca put it, the last serious thing

Spain went for 31 seasons without a matador being killed in the ring — a period without precedent in the long annals of bullfighting. Then in 2016, just as critics were beginning to wonder in print whether the essence of the art had changed, a matador called Víctor Barrio took a horn through the chest on live TV in the forgotten town of Teruel, dying shortly afterwards. Eleven months later — the same span that had separated Paquirri’s death from Yiyo’s — the Basque bullfighter Ivan Fandiño stumbled while readjusting his cloth in a French bullring and got a fatal horn through his stomach. 

Suddenly, Spain was craning forward again, with that peculiar gravity that only death elicits. Loathe the spectacle if you want. Despise it if you must. But it remains, as the poet Lorca put it, the last serious thing. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover