Taurine state of grace

Christopher North joins the devoted cult of the elegant, enigmatic bullfighter José Tomás

Sol y Sombra

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

I visited Barcelona once, for about eight hours. I didn’t see the Joan Miró collection, the Sagrada Familia or the Ramblas. But I saw one of the most wrenchingly beautiful things I expect ever to see.

It was 2007, and Catalonia was grinding inexorably towards abolition. Toreo had never been much loved in that brisk and business-like region. “Although bullfighting flourishes in Barcelona,” wrote Hemingway in 1931, “it is on a fake basis because the public that attends goes as to a circus for excitement and entertainment.”

Catalans, Papa believed, were too materialistic to have a proper sense of tragedy. The Barcelona ring had not been full for decades. But, on that bright June evening, there were no tickets to be had for love nor money. Aficionados had come from around the world to watch the comeback of the most enigmatic bullfighter of the age, José Tomás.

Aficionados had come from around the world to watch the comeback of the most enigmatic bullfighter of the age, José Tomás

It was in 1995, in Mexico City’s vast, funnel-like bullring, that he had become a matador. He started as he meant to go on, refusing to move his feet, drawing the bulls impossibly close and getting himself gashed. To this day, Mexico’s Tomasistas are cult-like in their devotion. Two years later, he gave a transcendent performance in Madrid, largely with his left hand.

“José Tomás arrived,” wrote the greatest taurine correspondent of the day, El País’s Joaquín Vidal, “and since then, bullfighting has had a before and an after.”

What makes the tall, silent matador so special? To answer, I first need to say something of the canons of classical toreo. Juan Belmonte, who created bullfighting as we know it today (see Sol y Sombra, June 2020), summarised them as “parar, templar y mandar”. Parar: To stop the bull, catching it in the cloth while you hold your ground. Templar: To temper its charge, slowing it to your own pace. Mandar: To dominate the animal, sending it where you want.

Domingo Ortega, the great maestro of the 1930s, added a fourth canon: “cargar la suerte”, literally to load the move, meaning to shift your weight in such a way that your pass is not only elegant but functional, making the bull go where you want afterwards.

José Tomás’s style appeals as much to the intellectuals as to the masses

José Tomás excels in all four — especially the first. His rigidity in front of the animals needs to be seen to be believed. Even when he is tossed, as he often is, he is as stiff mid-air as an ironing board. Mandar, for him, means imposing his pre-planned routine on temperamentally varied bulls, opening with terrifying estatuarios, where he stands motionless in the centre of the ring and deflects the bull at the last second with a tiny flicker of cloth, and closing with manoletinas, where he holds the red muleta with both hands slightly behind him and lets the animal hurtle beneath. (The manoletina was invented, not by Manolete, whose fatal goring in 1947 was the greatest tragedy in taurine history, but by Domingo Ortega. Not a lot of people know that. But I digress.)

José Tomás’s style appeals as much to the intellectuals as to the masses. Taurine critics are awe-struck by his close, controlled classicism. Tremendista crowds in Andalusia love the way he keeps coming back after being gored. His detractors complain, with justice, that he won’t appear before the tougher castes of bull; but even they allow that his poise and courage are unmatched.

We know little of the man himself, because he doesn’t give interviews and won’t let his performances be televised. I have a hunch that, unusually for a bullfighter, he is on the left. He is the only matador I have seen who dedicates to commoners when royals are present. But no one really has any idea.

It took Catalonia’s abolitionism to call him back

In 2002, he suddenly stopped. I say “stopped” rather than “retired” because retiring would have required him actually to say something. Instead, he simply declined new contracts, reputedly spending his time listening to Wagner and watching old black-and- white reels of poor Manolete.

It took Catalonia’s abolitionism to call him back and, 14 years on, I can still recall his performance pass by pass. Above all, I remember the silence.

José Tomás was so close to the horns, so tranquil and so solemn that applause would have been as out of place as during Mass. He seemed indeed a sacerdotal figure — a high priest who offered his own life before accepting the animal’s. Every one of us was transfigured by the rite.

Last year, José Tomás was meant to appear in Nîmes, but Covid intervened — meaning that your correspondent travelled to that ancient Roman town and suffered the consequent quarantine for lesser toreros. If he returns this year, though, I’ll be there — wherever it is. Since that evening in Barcelona, I, too, have had a before and an after.

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