Sol y Sombra

Opening gambits

Christopher North witnesses the start of the bullfighting season

Defenders of Gibraltar sometimes point to Spain’s enclaves in Morocco as evidence of a double standard, but there is a far more precise parallel. Spain defeated Portugal in 1801, grabbed the border settlement of Olivença, and hung onto it. In both cases, the annexation was ratified by treaty. In both cases, the defeated party might reasonably claim that it signed under duress. If anything, Portugal has a stronger claim to its lost territory than has Spain, since Spain was supposed to hand Olivença back at the end of the Napoleonic wars. In both cases, though, the knockdown argument is that local people are happy as they are.

Every March, their tiny town is overrun, like Mecca during the pilgrimage, by taurine aficionados

The people of Olivenza (the Spanish name) have an extra reason for not wanting to switch sovereignty. Every March, their tiny town is overrun, like Mecca during the pilgrimage, by taurine aficionados. The Spanish bullfighting season used to open with Valencia’s Festival of the Fallas, in which vast and elaborate wooden dioramas, painstakingly constructed over the previous year, are put to the torch. But, since 1991, Olivenza has sneaked in a week earlier with a feria (festival) out of all proportion to its tiny size.

Why is it so successful? The nearest hotels are 15 miles away in Badajoz or across the border in Elvas. Extremadura in March is often cold and wet. The bulls are still carrying traces of their winter coats and can be ponderous. But toreo (bullfighting) is an addiction, and the ring is always heaving with visitors from around Europe, desperate for their fix after five months of deprivation.

This year, aficionados got one of those transcendent moments that they hope for every time they buy a ticket. It came, somewhat improbably, from a matador called Antonio Ferrera. To explain what was special, I first need to say something about the aesthetic appeal of toreo.

The first time you watch a bull fight, you will be struck by the sheer thrill of what is happening. The toro bravo is the deadliest of land mammals, capable of disembowelling almost any adversary. To see a man dominating it with a scrap of cloth draped over a stick is extraordinary. When that man emphasises the risks he is taking — by, for example, looking away as the bull passes him, or touching it between its horns, or dropping to his knees — he draws attention to the imbalance of force.

After a while, though, you realise that these moves are closer to circus tricks than to artistry. You come to appreciate, instead, slow, close, classical capework. You see that the true miracle is to keep the bull’s head down, ready for an upward thrust that somehow never comes, like a gun that is cocked but that never quite shoots. You marvel at the plastic beauty created by the combined lines of man, animal and cloth.

There are matadors who stick to crowd-pleasing bombast. These are sometimes called tremendistas. They can make a good living, especially in smaller rings where the spectators see only one or two bull fights a year, but they are disdained by aficionados.

For most of his career, Ferrera was a tremendista. To his credit, he was an unusually brave one, ready to appear in front of the nastiest and most unpredictable breeds of bull. A British aficionado friend of mine, a baronet with an almost superhuman knowledge of horses, used to describe him as “my guilty pleasure”,meaning that his vulgarity was tempered by his valour.

Five years ago, Ferrera was badly injured, putting him of action for two seasons. He spent the time poring over old film reels, focusing on what Spaniards call the “golden age” of toreo — namely the years leading up to the fatal goring of Joselito in 1920. When Ferrera came back, he had revived and modified several passes not seen in a century — especially those involving the two-handed cape used in the earlier stages of a bull fight, which he swirls out like the skirt of a gypsy dancer while the bull follows, entranced.

In Olivenza, Ferrera drew two very different bulls. One was ill-tempered and crafty, the other brave and high-hearted. He killed the complicated bull in a style that no one had seen before. Not, as is normal, by running towards it, going over its horns and planting his sword high in its shoulders (volapié). Nor yet, as is much rarer, by letting the bull rush towards him to impale itself while he held the sword steady (recibiendo). Rather, he walked slowly towards it, meeting its rush with a perfectly placed blade to the hilt.

As for the straight-charging bull, he immediately saw its quality and treated us to such an array of baroque capecraft that the crowd was transported. As he prepared for the sword, people began to petition for an indulto — that is, for the bull to be spared so that it might sire equally noble sons. An indulto is exceptional in Spain: perhaps one bull in 300 (in Mexico’s tremendista rings, it is more common). When it happens, an almost redemptive sense washes over the crowd.

This time, it was especially powerful. Here was a 42-year-old matador, a man who had tried to commit suicide only a year earlier, creating a liquid sculpture with the handsomest and most aristocratic of animals. In the intensity of the moment, we felt elevated, ennobled, purified. And we knew why we’d keep coming back.

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

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover