Prologue: El Perdón
On Sept. 16, 2012, in Nimes, southern France, the Spanish bullfighter José Tomás fought six bulls in one afternoon. Although I was not there in person, it remains the most transcendently beautiful fight of the world’s most troubling sport that I have ever seen. Over the course of nearly three hours, Tomás solidified his place in bullfighting history not just for the five bulls he killed, but for the one he saved, a behemoth named, ironically, Ungrateful. Peruvian Nobel prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa wrote of that day, “I have never seen a bullring so packed, and the people so overwhelmed.” El Mundo’s bullfighting critic, Vincente Zabala de la Serna, wrote, “Some of us wept at the sight of such excellence, of perfection. I write this with sunny tears, blinded by emotion.”
Banned by Tomás from being broadcast on television, there are, nevertheless, films of the performance that offer various keyholes into this forbidden garden, particularly the end, the pardon, images as striking and startling as anything I have seen.
With each pass, Tomás displays increasingly less cape to Ungrateful until he keeps it entirely concealed behind his back, urging death to charge, only to offer a few feet of cloth that billow gracefully in the air, carried by the force of the bull’s horns as Tomás pirouettes and spins the cape back into a curtain. The bull charges again and Tomás allows the animal’s momentum to wrap the cape around his torso. Tomás turns, then deliberately paces to a new location, choking one end of the cloth like a wet rag.
Without leaving the anchor of one slippered foot driven into a few grains of sand, Tomás’s eyes never leave the folds of his muleta as the bull makes several more passes. Only then does the matador notice the white handkerchiefs fluttering above him, shaking in the open air, the crowd’s petition to the bullfight’s president to pardon the animal based on his courage. This rarely happens in a matador’s entire career.
Ungrateful is, of course, ignorant to all of this, panting and bleeding away, glaring only at his nemesis. Tomás’s focus returns to the bull and his expression softens for an instant. Then he leaves the animal waiting in the center of the ring while he calmly paces over to the barrera and is handed his sword. He returns to the bull and holds his cape unfurled down his thigh, his other leg back, then brings the handle of his sword against his cheek to sight the tip of the blade between Ungrateful’s shoulder blades, the kill zone about the size of a silver dollar. The roar of the crowd reaches a crescendo as Tomás stands with the bull in pristine silence.
Tomás remains perfectly still and poised, sword in hand until, suddenly, unexpectedly, he drops it to his side, out of view from the bull. Blood glistens and froths from where the bull has been pierced by the picador’s spear and the dangling banderillas. Tomás then lowers the cape like a shade, an invitation, until the bull obliges and follows it down the point of his horns, bowing his head, unknowingly exposing his most vulnerable area to the sword’s tip. Then, with a jerk of his wrist, Tomás releases the sword and gravity carries it to the ground.
With the same hand, he now reaches over to his cheek and sights the kill in mime as the bull prepares to embrace fate. Tomás tugs at the cape and then springs forward to lance the bull just as it ignites at the same moment toward him.
But this is Tomás. He sails over the horns and slaps the bull on the precise location where his death would have arrived. The bull quickly turns around, faces Tomás one last time, an apparition, before the man turns his back, strolls off, then turns and beckons the bull to exit the ring, summoning him from the light to the darkness, from death to the rest of his life.
Then Tomás walks away, back into the ring, alone amid the weeping and the cheers.
1. Ghosts in the Machinery
May 28, 1998, San Isidro Festival, Madrid
At the heart of bullfighting is an hourglass hemorrhaging sand. Everyone moves through time and then, at some point, we look around to find time moving through us. The matador must confront it every day, every second, and each moment of their working life, struggling in the past, present and future of a perversely insular world as death looms close enough to feel its breath on the cheek. Bullfighting is every bit as ghoulish and savage as its critics warn, but it is equally as powerful and moving as its supporters insist. Perhaps the most vexing aspect about it is that neither group is wrong, they are both telling the truth. At the heart of all romanticism is suffering.
In film or on stage, in reflecting life through art, an actor has a second take or another day with his or her performance if something goes wrong. Bullfighters are spies crossing into enemy lines. Any mistake, no matter how minor or trivial, is potentially fatal. All the chips of a human life are pushed in against a bull that has been nurtured to fruition like a fine Burgundy wine or Stradivarius violin — to be the finest specimen on earth — calibrated with immense precision toward aggression, courage and violence. Before a toro bravo enters the ring on his last day, by Spanish law, he has lived five years without ever having seen a man stand before him. In Greek myth, virgins were sacrificed to the Minotaur, in Spain, the tables are turned and the bull must confront this ritual as a virgin. He learns fast, but the bull has just 15 minutes to make sense of being shipwrecked into his fate inside a ring and ascertain this nightmarish setting is all for his demise. And the matador’s art form is to honor the condemned, which, inescapably, symbolically, is the fate of us all on this side of the earth, heaven above, and hell below.
I saw my first bullfight in Spain at 18, half my life ago. Since then, I have witnessed perhaps 50 more. I have no arguments to defend how brutal and disturbing a ritual the corrida is. Like all tragedies, no matter the beauty created, there are no happy endings. If it is indeed an art form, bullfighting is the most disturbing I have ever witnessed. Yet, I must admit matadors, on rare occasions, have managed to use a piece of red cloth to draw back a curtain on the world and reveal more of what it means to live and die than any other art or experience I’ve encountered.
Does that offer this demented ceremony clemency? In my head — patently no. In my heart, there is a hung jury. If Spain is eagerly ready to be rid of its past, much of its past stubbornly refuses to be done with Spain.
I returned to Spain this summer for the first time in 11 years. I moved there for a year in 2004 and arrived just before the Atocha train station terrorist bombing that claimed 191 lives and injured 1,800. I lived only a few blocks from the station, not far from the Prado museum, home to many of the world’s greatest art treasures: Titian’s The Fall of Man, Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Caravaggio, Velasquez, and Goya, my favorite artist. The horror of Atocha seemed straight out of Goya’s bleak imagination. I vividly remember the cellphones that had been blown out of the hands of victims still ringing, scattered all over what was left of the station after the explosion, as loved ones called out to ghosts. I took a train from Madrid to Seville with my shaken girlfriend and discovered in the papers another bomb had been discovered on the same tracks the day before I left.
The Ordóñez family is one of the two most famous bullfighting families in Spanish history. Ernest Hemingway once referred to Antonio Ordóñez as “not only the greatest bullfighter but the greatest artist I have ever known.” But of course, none of Ordóñez’s fights could ever be sold at auction or hung on the walls of the Prado. They lived and died in the hearts of a nation. Antonio’s father, Cayetano Ordóñez, known across Spain as Nino de la Palma, was the basis for Pedro Romero in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Antonio’s son-in-law, Francisco Rivera “Paquirri” died on Sept. 26, 1984, from injuries sustained in a bullring. His death touched off three days of official mourning across Spain, and his funeral became a chapter in Spanish folklore. People remember precisely where they were when Paquirri, on his deathbed, calmly informed the doctor where his injuries were before losing his life.
One of his two sons, also named Francisco Rivera, was 10 at the time of his father’s death. His mother, terrified that Fran, as the Spanish call him, would join the family business, sent him to a military academy in Indiana. Fran returned to Ronda soon after and pleaded with his grandfather to become a matador himself. Antonio, who had long since retired after being gored 34 times in 32 years’ worth of fighting bulls, joined his mother in begging him not to. When Fran insisted, Antonio refused to ever watch him fight, admitting during a 60 Minutes profile on Fran that he was, quite uncharacteristically given his status to the contrary, “too scared.”
Fran’s meteoric rise in bullfighting had not been seen since the days of his grandfather. Then, at age 24, already a top paid matador earning several million dollars a year, he became the first bullfighter to marry into Spanish royalty, wedding Eugenia, the 12th Duchess of Montoro, and became even more famous. Before his divorce, 60 Minutes labeled him “Tom Cruise of the corrida.” Asked why he defied the wishes of his mother and grandfather to risk his life every afternoon in a bullring, he answered, “I dream about fighting bulls every night.”
“I don’t think a professional tennis player dreams about tennis every night,” the late 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon replied with a smile.
“A tennis player doesn’t play with his life normally.”
“If he has a bad day he’ll lose a match.”
“That’s it,” Fran grinned. “If I have a bad day, maybe I’ll lose my life.”
He had such a bad day last week, on Aug. 11, now aged 41, gored through the pubis. He is expected to survive, but never to return to the ring.
The capital of the bullfighting world is in Madrid. Starting on May 15, the San Isidro festival offers the greatest display of bullfighting in the world, taking place over 24 afternoons. When I first cautiously approached the menacing grandeur of the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas bullring many years ago to buy a ticket for a corrida for the first time, apart from Fran’s story and what I’d read of his family in Hemingway, I knew nothing about the sport. I did not know any of the matadors listed on the schedule, or what made one superior to another. For guidance, in my broken Spanish I consulted a group of well-dressed, cigar-smoking men huddled in the shade outside the arena. On Sundays, Spaniards joke, men can wear the same suit for all three of the day’s traditional destinations: the Church, the whorehouse, and the bullfight.
I sheepishly asked the group about who among the matadors was worth seeing. They described their various qualities not in words but in mime, gestures of the hands, illustrating just how close each man allowed the horns to his heart.
When they finished, there was still one name left, one with a price tag as ridiculously expensive as that of Francisco Rivera Ordóñez.
“José Tomás?” I asked.
The group puffed on their cigars, eyeing me. Then they explained, this time in words, that bullfighting’s greatest genius was imposible de ver, unwatchable. His audience was so frightened by his performances they covered their eyes and no one could bear to look through their fingers. There was no margin, no space between man and bull.
I only had enough money to watch one matador, either Ordóñez or the 23-year-old Tomás. All the tickets had long since been sold, but after that description of his artistry and Spain’s strange devotion to it, I hunted down a scalper and with every last cent I paid to watch Tomás in the flesh.
The idea of any bloodlust toward animals repulses me. The most money I have ever spent in my life was to a veterinarian trying to save my dying, one-eared cat with a failing kidney. The only meat my grandfather in British Columbia could afford to feed his family with came from game he shot “in the bush.” But the concept of causing unnecessary suffering to animals, let alone trophy hunting them or ritualized torture and slaughter of bulls for the entertainment of a crowd, would have disgusted him. I assumed I would share in his feelings. What gnawed at me was how anyone could call something like this art.
But perhaps the bullring owes as much to an asylum as the coliseums of Rome. Like all the masters, José Tomás owned the arena before he even stepped foot on the sand. Nothing about this ordeal resembled sport. When the band played and Tomás arrived, the glare of the sun sparkling off his traje de luces, even the look on his face silenced the audience in a country that is rarely silent. His thousand-yard stare seemed to capture both his own mortality and the troubled history of his people. Time slowed down to match his perfect stillness and it gradually dawned on all of us, this conjuror, this Houdini of the corrida was performing no illusion or trick. There was nothing up his sleeve. All his magic resided in his heart, beating in perfect unison with the bull’s. He was a man on a wire floating calmly, miles above the void. More than any human being I have ever seen, he seemed completely untethered from the world, almost appearing in the process of committing suicide, slowly, deliberately, absent of panic or concern.
It is interesting how little people act at the most important moments in their lives, even confronting death. Usually there is no one to act for. We are not often allowed to witness the demise. But this corridor of intimacy between life and death had a crowd voyeuristically barnacled to it, eyes from every angle. Then, as a half-ton of fighting bull charged into the ring like an assassin’s bullet and eagerly zeroed in on the man standing alone with only a cape to defend himself, every gasp from the 25,000 watching seemed to rattle off Tomás’ soul like a wind chime. As the cape was gradually drawn and the bull pointed his horn toward Tomás’s heart before his rush, I watched a man play Russian roulette in his own cemetery with a bull, the hero of this tragedy Spain adores and despises in nearly equal measure.
In this fatal theater, José Tomás assumed the role of nature — by extension death — against an immaculately strong and healthy animal who had — by Spanish law — never before encountered conflict of any kind. The animal represented life and a fate sealed the day he was born. All sympathy flows toward him as it dawns in his awareness that this extended nightmare has been entirely calibrated for his execution.
So the dance began, sun and shadow, life and death, murder and suicide, art and crime. An existential hourglass flipped over and the bull had just 15 minutes to live. Any longer, and the fear is in that short time he will learn enough of man to kill every matador placed before him. Unlike captivity in a slaughterhouse awaiting a whirling blade to slit its neck, in the ring a bull retains the agency to act out his nature. And in his brief time with the bull, Tomás’s craft was in the decision to surrender to the bull, like a fallen idol in a Greek tragedy, or play the Shakespearean hero, resigned to fate.
I left the ring after Tomás had finished with his two bulls, both entirely revolted by bullfighting and completely convinced that in that half hour I had learned as much about Spain as if I had spent a lifetime examining the paintings in the Prado. But this might suggest the two could be separated. It cannot. Nearly all of Spain’s great artists draw from the same bloody well of inspiration.
2. The Capital of the World
“Spain is different!” claimed a popular and much despised 1960s tourist slogan. Today, perhaps, those differences have contributed in making Spain the world’s third most visited country. Wherever you first arrive in Madrid, one in four streets offer a decibel level that violates the World Health Organization limits on noise, posing a threat to health and sanity. The government makes things even worse pumping billions of Euros into the economy to ignite fiestas throughout the year, distracting the people from their economic plight — an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent, nearly 50 percent for the young — with an endless, whirling party. Spaniards smoke like chimneys, consume more cocaine than any people in Europe, and still manage to live longer than just about anyone on the continent. Follow any Madrid street and, with startling frequency, Spain’s history unfolds upside down.
Plaza Mayor, the heart of the city, was just down the street from an apartment I rented and offered coffee and a newspaper at a café where blood once spilled from public executions and bullfights that took place not so long ago before a king and his subjects. With time to explore this land and her culture, Don Quixote, Velazquez’s Las Meninas, and the Alhambra Palace come at your heart like a love-letter stuffed inside a Molotov cocktail, a weapon first used during “Le Guerra,” the Spanish Civil War, in 1936, a war between the Fascists of Franco and the Republicans. It killed one in 30 Spanish men, sent 400,000 into exile, and left Spain under Franco’s heavy thumb for another 35 years.
According to many linguists and translators, the hardest word in the Spanish language to translate into our own is “duende.” Lorca explained it this way, “Duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought … duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet. Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation … everything that has black sounds in it, has duende … In all countries, death is an ending. It arrives and the curtain falls. Not in Spain. In Spain the curtain is raised.”
Back to bullfighting, one of Spain’s many black boxes, with a man alone in the center of a ring. Whatever of note happens will appear on the cultural pages rather than in the sports section the following day. Journalists cover the sport like theatre or opera critics, not sportswriters.
The modern style of bullfighting began with a cripple named Juan Belmonte, who many consider the finest bullfighter who ever lived. Until that time, the bullfight was little more than an entertainment, a circus show, a man chasing a bull around the ring. Then Belmonte chose suicide, facing the bull, standing absolutely still, motionless.
He was born in Seville in 1892, shy and insecure, with deformed legs that refused to allow him to run or jump, so he bluffed his way into the life of his dreams. He turned his handicap into a revolutionary new technique that irrevocably altered the art form.
He refused to be in orbit of death. Instead, he planted his feet and calmly allowed death to orbit him, allowing the bulls to come so close hairs would be stuck in his jacket. “I went to the ring,” he said, “like a mathematician going to the blackboard to prove a theorem.” At issue were death and its geometry.
From 1914 until 1920, bullfighting’s Golden Age was fueled by a haunting duel between Belmonte and Joselito, the child prodigy, at 17 the youngest to receive the title of matador de toros. The rivalry of statues concluded on May 16, 1920, when Joselito was fatally gored in a small town outside Madrid. By 1925, Belmonte was on the cover of Time. He would continue fighting, on and off, for 10 more years, teased by his friends and critics that the only thing he failed to accomplish inside a bullring was his own death. “I’ll see what I can do,” Belmonte always replied.
Yet after 24 serious gorings and thousands of corridas, nothing in the ring killed Belmonte. He took that honor himself.
A year before, upon hearing of Ernest Hemingway’s suicide in Ketchum, Idaho (who had just acquired tickets for that year’s San Fermin festival in Pamplona), he is said to have replied, “Well done.” The following year, suffering from a grave heart condition and terminal lung cancer, a doctor informed him the brutalities of the bullring and hard living meant he could no longer ride his beloved horses, smoke, drink or fuck. He had his favorite horse brought to him, along with several cigars, two bottles of his favorite wine and two prostitutes from a Seville brothel. At the end of the day, he shot himself with a pistol and was buried in Seville, 20 yards from Joselito.
It was left to Manuel Laureano Rodríguez, better known as “Manolete” and Belmonte’s successor, to supply Spain’s romantic culture with what Belmonte could not.
He was 30 at the time of his death and had risen to prominence as the Spanish Civil War began. Shortly before a horn took his life inside the ring on Aug. 29, 1947, killed by a Miura bull, the most dangerous in the world, Manolete had been challenged to a mano a mano duel from Luis Miguel Dominguín, a matador eight years his junior, for dominance over the corrida.
After Manolete’s passing, Dominguín was unchallenged and retired six years later, at the peak of his fame, then became even more famous for bedding Frank Sinatra’s movie-star wife, Ava Gardner. Four years later, in 1958, he accepted Antonio Ordóñez’s challenge and returned to the ring to face Ordóñez in another mano a mano contest that saw both men repeatedly seriously gored in the process. Just before his decent into madness and finally suicide, Hemingway closely followed and wrote of this event in The Dangerous Summer.
Three months after I first saw José Tomás, the Spanish press was announcing him as not just Belmonte’s successor, but also the great Manolete, and Joselito’s, the latest — and perhaps the last — of the line.
3. Tourist Information
Ernest Hemingway was one of the more interesting people of the 20th century, but my affection for him lay in the fact he was a lot more interest-ed in the world around him. A Hemingway character never walks into a bar anywhere in the world without knowing the bartender and the ideal drink to order before expertly going off to do the most wonderful adventure wherever he happens to be. This is a useful kind of guy to know, but now every bar Hemingway ever drank at — in Paris, Pamplona, Key West, Venice, Havana — is resoundingly the worst place on earth to grab a drink both in cost and atmosphere. For that you can thank successive generations of his readers plundering Hemingway’s experience instead of living their own.
In December of 2000, my father got very sick and initially refused treatment. After he had a major operation, I borrowed a couple thousand dollars from my uncle and fled to Spain to see José Tomás face death. It was the dead of winter and I quickly discovered there are no bullfights in winter. This was a considerable setback to my plans of running away from the world.
The only room I could afford in Madrid near the Prado museum was in a pension that was being run as a brothel where transgender women worked. It was as cheerful an atmosphere as you might expect. We all shared the same bathroom. The girls called me “El Guapo” — Handsome — when they passed me in the hallways. They worked outside the gates of the Parque del Retiro while the Moroccans sold hash both inside and under the massive lion statues overlooking the pond with the rowboats. It was all very civilized. The Moroccan dealers even had business cards.
I stayed on a couple more months until my money ran out continuing my investigation of Tomás and bullfighting the best I could from the Prado museum, Madrid’s libraries, and the bars bullfighters and aficionados frequented. The previous year, Tomás had again been proclaimed the winner of the feria San Isidro in Madrid. The newspaper Cossio said of his performance that year, “No one can understand how a man is capable of such beauty.” Soon after that, José Tomás pulled his fights from television, explaining that his art lived and died only with each performance.
“We live in a very superficial age, full of lies,” Tomás lamented soon afterwards. “People say I’m revolutionizing the bullfight, but I’m not sure. I can only say that I try to do things the way I feel them. In the old-fashioned way, with a certain purity, as they’ve always been done in this world.”
Then he stopped talking to the press altogether. His myth swelled to new heights in his self-imposed media vacuum.
But the pressures and demands on him led to reclusiveness. He fought with growing irregularity until 2002, when, at 27, and at the zenith of his acclaim, like chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, Tomás vanished from bullfighting, an act that seemed to scramble Spain’s DNA. He gave no explanation and aficionados could ascertain no motive.
He shacked up with a checkout girl from a local supermarket and disappeared with her to Estepona on the southern coast of Spain. He bided his time, joined a local soccer team, and kept mostly to himself. Paparazzi found little more than a man who liked to fish or chew large wads of bubble gum while walking his dog.
As the years passed, hope gave out that Spain’s most mysterious, iconoclastic matador would ever again ply his chilling trade.
Then, Tomás reached for his cape, donning the black winged cap and matching slippers, and strutted out of retirement and back into an open-air theater in 2007 as bullfighting’s resident savior. He announced only that “To live without fighting bulls is not to live at all.” Tickets to his return sold out within a day. Tomás allegedly was paid a million dollars to fight in Barcelona, more than any matador in history.
Another of Spain’s hourglasses flipped over, the counterpoint to joy greeting Tomás’s return. Before, questioning bullfighting as a cultural tradition had been taboo in Spain — to do so was to be seen as a traitor, unpatriotic. But during Tomás’ absence this all changed. The swelling anti-bullfight movement — virtually non-existent only 20 years before — rose up. Tomás became the iconic target and face of the moral outrage against a government-subsidized cultural tradition of slaughter and torture. He returned to a sport under existential threat, a paradox, both devil and savior.
In June of 2007 he made — according to the Spanish press — his “messianic” return to bullfighting in a very deliberate location: the Plaza de Toros Monumental in Barcelona. Catalonian support for bullfighting had long been dwindling, most bullrings nearly being put out of business. But with the return of Tomás, Barcelona’s largest stadium sold out for the first time in 20 years. Scalpers sold tickets for $4,000.
To counteract this enthusiasm for the “maestro’s” return, the largest anti-bullfighting protest in the history of Spain gathered to greet Tomás’s arrival. Five thousand protesters marched from the Rambla, in the city center, for nearly two miles over Joan Miro’s famous mosaic and under the tree-lined boulevard and Gaudi-sculpted lamps, past Barcelona’s most beautiful fountains, the opera house, and world famous flower and caged bird markets until they reached the bullring. Lorca described Las Ramblas, created in 1440, as “the only street in the world which I wish would never end.” The protesters carried with them 80,000 signatures to galvanize a parliamentary bill banning bullfighting and wailed at ticket holders entering the Plaza.
Tomás’s performance that afternoon, dramatic, profound, and transcendent, ripe with duende, garnered three ears — the bullfight’s version of a trophy. It was as if even the bulls understood something that day, one after the other bending to his will, brushing his cape with their horns, plowing toward him again and again in valiant attempts to pick the pocket of his life. After they would stand in wonder as Tomás would turn his back and delicately wander away, both utterly exposed and serenely at peace with the grandeur of demise.
He was carried in triumph out of the ring on the shoulders by supporters, surrounded by a mob of roaring enthusiasts. Many left weeping.
After the fight, a headline read, “And the Myth Was Made Flesh.” El Pais called the performance, “a poetic and mysterious silence … a silence that makes you shudder, because it doesn’t shirk from the silence surrounding death.” The New York Times would write of Tomás, “His detractors complained he was just scaring people to death.”
“As Spain goes, so goes toreo,” is an old Spanish adage. With the recession of 2008 battering Spain, bullfighting, which had never been more popular or reviled in its history, began a precipitous decline in activity. On the 15th of June that year in Madrid, Tomás was gored three times and yet after each violation he calmly rose to his feet, covered in blood, and continued, allowing the bull even closer as his cape wrapped around his body or tossed gracefully in the air. After the fight, he immediately endured three operations. The Times reported that when an old matador was asked about Tomás’s performance he replied, “What is courage? It’s the spot where José Tomás stands.”
In 2008, Spain’s culture minister gave José Tomás that year’s prestigious Fine Arts medal. When they gave the same medal to Fran — Francisco Rivera Ordóñez, the well-connected, well-heeled heir to the Ordóñez dynasty, the following year, Tomás returned his in protest and created a scandal.
A year later, in 2010, Tomás, now aged 35, was nearly killed in the bullring of Aguascalientes, Mexico. A half-ton bull named Navegante drove its horn into his thigh and burst an artery that leaked nearly half the blood from his body. An announcement went out to the crowd begging for donations of his rare blood type. While in a coma, it took 18 bags of blood, each holding 200 milliliters, to keep him alive in the hospital. As Tomás fought for his life in Mexico, bullrings across Spain honored him with a minute of silence the following Sunday. After Tomás pulled through and regained consciousness, his only comment was, “Aguascalientes, I bathed your bullring with blood; and from your blood I filled my veins.”
In 2011 José Tomás returned to fight in Barcelona’s Monumental bullring one last time during the La Merced Festival, a rebellious emblem from Spain’s past challenging Spain’s future, the final corrida fought before Catalonia’s ban came into effect.
4. Pipe Dreams
June 28 2015, Madrid, Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas
Eighteen years after my first visit, I flew back to Madrid to see some amateur bullfights held at Las Ventas. José Tomás had refused to announce any fights in festivals across the country this summer and was instead fighting in Mexico. I expect he will die or retire before I will ever have an opportunity to see him again. So instead, I planned a month of traveling across Spain to visit the cradle of modern bullfighting in Ronda, watch the new young matadors clutching for Tomás’s mantle in Madrid and Seville, and catch the tail end of San Fermín in Pamplona.
In the decade since I had last been back, a recession had battered Spain’s economy, leaving the country brittle. The intensifying referendum on the cruelty of bullfighting had intersected with international outrage over a spate of high profile animal cruelty stories. These ranged from Trump’s sons, The Donald Jr. and Eric-photographed in 2012 sawing off the tails of elephants, hanging 13-foot crocodiles by a noose off from branches, and clinging gleefully to the carcass of a slumped leopard, to Wells Tower’s searing 2014 GQ account of an elephant hunt, to more recent viral outrages, such as the woman who posed with the giraffe she shot and called it a “very dangerous animal” and Walter Palmer, the dentist recently vilified for killing Cecil, a beloved Zimbabwe lion.
African wildlife, as usual, seemed of far more grave concern to the world than African or African-American people. So it is in Spain with the bulls. The country might be going down the drain, but the protests center around the corrida.
Despite the massive unemployment rate across the country, on the surface at least, Madrid had not changed much. The optics on the marginalization and disenfranchisement of the immigrant groups felt about the same. The prostitutes who still worked out in the open near the shopping district at the center of town in Puerta del Sol were still mostly Romanian and South American. Northern Africans still peddled knock-off goods to tourists on blankets wherever they could, one step ahead of the police, and supplied hash in the park. Pickpockets swarmed the arrival of tour buses. Bullfighting’s attendance, at record rates leading into the recession, had, like nearly all the industries, plummeted. As pressure mounted to ban the corrida across the country, King Felipe VI, a trophy hunter in Africa as well as passionate fan, had publicly stated Spain would leave the EU before renouncing bullfighting’s place in Spanish culture. His wife, on the other hand, loathed them and refused to attend anymore.
Tickets to see teenage novillero bullfighters at Las Ventas were cheap. Since they were trying to make a name for themselves in the Mecca of bullfighting, like young boxers with nothing to lose facing solid contenders on television, they often took ridiculous chances and gorings were common.
They do not want to be José Tomás, not really. They cared about him less as an artist than as a destination. Like the poor young kids that once flooded gyms from every hopeless inner-city or dead-ass town in America, who dreamed only of a way out and the glory that came with a championship belt, the novilleros seek only money, modern celebrity with bottle service, and a trophy blond on each arms. The work, the sacrifice that brings value, the only thing that can even begin to justify such barbarism, whether beating a man or defeating a bull, is of secondary concern. They fight bulls now for the same reason a person buys a lottery ticket. It is the only way out of dying ordinary, and worth the price, despite the odds, to sacrifice their lives for a passing chance.
The evening I attended, with maybe a third of the 25,000-seat capacity of Ventas occupied —mainly by tourists armed to the gills with selfie-sticks — five horns got wet with matador blood.
I wanted to see the next generation of Spain’s bullfighters, naively pining for the next Tomás, but of course, he was not there anymore than Madison Square Garden has offered the next Ali in boxing, or any of Madrid’s galleries offered the next Goya.
A friend vacationing from his work at a mental hospital for the criminally insane flew over to join me at Las Ventas. In baking heat, we watched three youthful matadors face six bulls from barrera seats, the closest you can get to the sand and sharing the perspective of the matador. Not only was it my friend’s first corrida, but it was also the first for an attractive, vacationing Australian couple sitting next to us.
Before the fight even started, they looked on the verge of splitting up over the boyfriend’s insistence they would spend a light, fun afternoon watching six bulls endure the three acts of the corrida, being stabbed by men riding on blindfolded horses, followed by having hooked spears inserted and snagged in the their shoulders, and, finally, ritually slaughtered with a bent sword before being hitched to a cart and dragged off by mules, leaving a bloody smearing in the earth, ready for a butcher to prepare tomorrow’s meat.
“I’m only staying for one,” the woman warned. “One. I can’t believe you dragged me here. This is completely disgusting.”
“It’s not,” he pleaded, lighting up a Cohiba cigar, re-enacting his Hemingway wet dream. “Give it a chance.”
“They drug the bulls,” she countered, feverishly waving away his smoke from her face. “That’s the only way they can kill them. They drug them so they’re sluggish.”
The psychiatrist shot me a look and leaned over in his seat whispering, “They drug the bulls?”
I discreetly shook my head. No.
A man walked to the center of the ring with a sign informing the crowd of the bull’s name, age, his breeder, and his weight — 520 kilograms, more than 1,000 pounds.
“Listen,” she pled to her partner, “I know for a fact they pour acid on them before they go out to fight so they’re crazed and disoriented. Why would you want to see something like this?” Smoke from his cigar autographed the air.
The first teenage novillero knelt down 10 meters from the gate where the bull awaited entry. He laid his fuschia and canary-yellow cape over the side of one knee until the brass band exploded from the rafters and the bull crashed into the ring, then paused with confusion seeing all of us around him, a crowd of people for the first time and one standing before him. He quickly focused his rage onto the Justin Bieber-like smirk 10 meters away crying out, “Ay! Toro! Ay! Ay!”
The bull didn’t need much prodding. As he charged, from where I was sitting, the bull’s favorite horn was aimed straight at the kid’s mouth. The matador’s smirk vanished and his eyes bulged while he nervously hoisted and spread out his cape to one side, an ersatz Dracula clowning on Halloween. Toro Bravos, despite their size, are fiendishly fast animals, capable of bursts of nearly 40 mph, 10 mph faster than Usain Bolt.
A brutal dart, the horn pierced through the matador’s cape and missed taking off the kids’ ear, not to mention half his face, by millimeters. The kid’s helpers ran over to distract the bull while he reclaimed the torn cape from the sand and traded it for a replacement. The bull was so eager to get at someone he cruised around the ring until something from the crowd pissed him off. He leapt and carried his half-ton of his rage over the wall. The ring veterinarian, the closest man to the bull behind the wall, scrambled for his life to get the hell away.
It took a minute for a handful of the matador helpers to lure the bull back into the ring with their capes.
Spain’s national symbol got back in the ring drooling and panting, suddenly pissing all over himself.
“Jesus,” the Australian woman moaned. “Look at how scarred the bull is! How many fights has he already had? This is disgusting.”
“Those aren’t scars, dear. It’s where his breeder branded him. They have a veterinarian at the arena who makes sure they’re in the peak of health before they fight.”
This is true. Ventas, along with most bullrings, also had some of the best surgeons in Spain on the premises in case the matadors are gored. That Sunday’s performance gave them plenty of work.
The bull returned to the ring as the two picadors marched out on blindfolded horses. As a spear pierced the bull’s shoulder, he nearly tossed both the horse and picador onto the sand. A banderillero took three flashy tries to place six banderillas, using an almost Kareem Abdul Jabbar-like sky-hook-style over one shoulder, and missed five.
When the amateur matador took the stage to complete the final act, the bull interrupted his procession of passes by tossing him in the air and piercing his thigh on the way down. He trampled the teenager under his hooves before the helpers ran in to save the matador and distract the bull. The teenager dusted himself off and after a few minutes battling his nerves rather than the bull with his cape, it was time for the final act, the coup de grace. But after three horrifically mucked-up attempts to kill that only buckled a sword off the animal’s spine and cartwheeled it to the sand, there was only blood frothing down the exhausted bull’s back and over both front legs.
The band kicked up a number to hurry things along as the matador distracted the bull with his cape. A helper snuck over like a crude assassin and jammed a dagger behind the bull’s head, and violently wriggling it until the spine was severed from the neck.
The bull finally toppled to the ground with the local crowd booing and some throwing garbage in protest. Most of the tourists didn’t seem to mind much, firing away with iPhones at the doomed spectacle and posting to their friends on Facebook or Instagram. As the bull was led away by mules, some sweepers ran over to rake away the trail of blood left in the sand.
The Australian girl finally persuaded her boyfriend to flee. The cigar hung limp in his hand as he followed her out.
I took a fast train out of Atocha station toward Andalusia, the countryside rolling past like sheet music. Ronda had the oldest bullring in the country (built in 1785) and Spain’s two most famous bullfighting dynasties, the Ordóñez and Romero families both call Rondo home. Pedro Romero, the most famous torero of his clan, died in 1839 after killing a reported 5,600 bulls. His family was responsible for the introduction of the cape and modern sword used in the corrida, but Pedro is credited with transforming bullfighting into an art form. He was the first matador to get off his horse and fight on foot, transforming the combat from their origins of knight combat to pedestrian. Today Ronda only has bullfights once a year, fought in September during the “Feria Goyesca,” a festival Antonio Ordóñez founded. With some luck, I also wanted to locate the Ordóñez ranch, a notoriously private place where both Orson Welles and Antonio Ordóñez were buried inside a well.
Past olive groves forming an animal print of the landscape, eventually giving way to gleaming wheat fields and haystacks seemingly still wet from van Gogh’s brush and assembled with Cezanne’s eye, it is hard to imagine any city in the world ensnaring your heart with more force of raw beauty. Ronda, preening against the backdrop of the Serrania de Ronda mountains that frame the El Tajo gorge, which carries the Guadalevin River under the Puente Nuevo bridge, straddling a 100-meter chasm beneath. The scene steals your breath even before you encounter the town’s women strolling arm-in-arm under moonlight or spot falcons glazing clouds smudged against an Andalusian sunset above that heartbreaking 18th century bridge that Donald Trump would turn into the bungee-jump capital of the world next to a Trump Casino and hotel.
I found an apartment down the hill from the town center and still had some time to visit the bullring and its bullfighting and duel museum (a legal means of resolving a dispute until the mid-19th century), then sniff around local restaurants for clues about the location of the ranch.
The bullring, only a few blocks from the bridge, is the largest diameter ring of any in the world, framed by a building of ornate Arabic tiles and 136 pillars creating up 68 arches. As tourist families walked out into the open air of the ring’s center and readied selfie-sticks for a portrait, I sat down in the stands and wondered why elite matadors, despite earning comparable incomes to major American athletes, are basically unknown beyond Spanish borders, and why they don’t seem to care about international recognition. None of them seek to become brands — although an Ordóñez matador was currently moonlighting as an Armani model — and the most famous matador in the world refused to have any of his work televised.
I walked up the street toward the Hotel Catalonia Reina Victoria, Rilke’s stomping grounds. Before I got there, the romance of the town got to me and I was sidetracked by a couple girls in obscenely short shorts strolling toward the magic hour’s sky at the edge of the Alameda Del Tajo Park. I followed them into the park, which is divided into five wide promenades, separated by gardens and fountains, the main and widest promenade continuing under the shade of trees toward the edge of the gorge with balconies overlooking the view that tints off into different shades with the distance. Old men gathered near the fountain feeding birds while couples holding hands strolled by under street lamps discreetly glowing above. Three generations of women shared a bench giggling at a little boy chasing pigeons.
I had never been here before, but gradually it dawned on me that its features were familiar. The two girls turned off down another trail before the gorge but something pulled me toward the railing at its edge. When I looked over the 300-foot drop, I realized this place fit every coordinate of the location of Hemingway’s most searing description of the brutality of the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Based on true accounts, it concerns the execution of a cowardly fascist amateur bullfighter, Don Faustino Rivero, as he was sent through a gauntlet of men armed with flails and clubs, hands over his eyes, intent on driving him over the cliff and into oblivion.
“But he must have looked through his fingers,” Hemingway wrote, “because when they came to the edge of the cliff with him, he knelt again, throwing himself down and clutching the ground and holding to the grass, saying, ‘No. No. No. Please. NO. Please. No. No.’ Then the peasants who were with him and the others, the hard ones of the end of the line, squatted quickly behind him as he knelt, and gave him a rushing push and he was over the edge without ever having been beaten and you heard him crying loud and high as he fell.”
I walked over to the Pedro Romero restaurant and found a table under autographed posters of José Tomás and the Ordóñez family. I made friends with a warm old waiter, who later would reluctantly give me directions to the Ordóñez ranch. He was not fishing for a bigger tip, he just respected their privacy and waited until he knew the brothers, Fran and Cayetano, were off fighting together in another town.
“The Ordóñez’s own Ronda,” he explained. “They are sort of living history and they know it. Dealing with them I find quite strange. I have been at this restaurant since I was teenager and I knew their grandfather, and he introduced me to them early on and I saw them grow up in this town. Being an Ordóñez opens doors across Spain. Their granddad didn’t want them to fight but they both became toreros. Fran started off promising and cut off four ears in Seville. Then he got carried away with marrying into royalty and being a celebrity. His brother has proved the better fighter.”
“What about José Tomás?” I asked. “Do you know him?”
“He eats here when he passes through town. On his first visit many years ago, when he was presented in the Ronda ring, Antonio Ordóñez signed him up for four years after watching him just once. I asked him about it. He told me, ‘I’ve never done it for anybody else. He has immense valor.’”
He fights about as often as Halley’s comet.
“Demasiado sangre the critics say,” he laughed. “Too much blood. Not the bull’s of course. His. Have you ever seen him?”
“Only once,” I said. “My first bullfight a long time ago.”
The waiter smiled. “He was your gateway drug into the corrida. Somehow, he got even better. I’m amazed he’s survived as long as he has. He’s even more reckless since he had a child.”
The next morning, before it got hot, I followed the waiter’s directions and walked six miles along the side of the road in the outskirts of Ronda toward the Ordóñez property. It was no palace or mansion, just a humble estate residing next to a campsite and a modest café for thirsty motorists. I went over to have a look. Some landscaping workers were gathered behind the gate and eyed me with suspicion when I took some photos from across the road. Via the campsite, I circled back and went around to discover a trail that allowed me to see into the Ordóñez backyard, but I could not spot the famous well holding the ashes of Welles and his friend Ordóñez.
The next morning, I took a train to Seville to see one of the more promising amateur fighters in the country, a 16-year-old teen heartthrob nicknamed “Juanito,” who was fighting inside the baroque façade of the La Maestranza Plaza de Toros, immortalized in Bizet’s opera Carmen. The bullring rests on the Guadalquivir riverbank, the smell of orange blossoms floating over from the labyrinth of streets behind it, concealing all kinds of scenic treasures. Seville is by far the most sensuous destination in Spain, but after giving birth to Joselito and Belmonte, it is renowned for having some of the harshest bullfighting critics.
Yet Juanito won them over. He dazzled everyone in Seville’s buttery light, especially the hundreds of young women in attendance. They mobbed him outside the ring after showering him with hats and undergarments moments after he killed.
July 2015, Second-to-last-day of San Fermin Festival
The tradition of the running of the bulls in Pamplona began in the early 14th century. Every morning, from July 7 until the 14, at 8 a.m., Spanish television features the running of the bulls on television. Each morning in Ronda and Seville, I religiously watched, on the lookout for a red, pinstriped jacket with a gaping hole above the side pocket from where a bull’s horn had pierced it on a previous run.
The jacket belonged to English author and journalist Alexander Fiske-Harrison. My Where’s Waldo routine had paid off twice during the first week of the festival, as I spotted Alexander twice in the tense crowd before the rocket burst and the gates swung open, unleashing six sets of horns down the cobblestone streets of Pamplona. He had written Into the Arena and co-written Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona with American Bill Hillman, who had gained international attention after being horribly gored by a 1,300-pound bull in Pamplona in 2014, only one month after the survival guide had been published. Since record keeping began in 1910, 15 people have been killed in Pamplona during the Festival, and about 100 are injured each year. Fiske-Harrison was a close friend of several prominent matadors and agreed to let me interview him and his inner circle at Pamplona.
We just hadn’t settled on a location.
“If you’re here,” Fiske-Harrison wrote me the day before I arrived, “meet me on the run — Santo Domingo — between half seven and eight. You know the jacket.”
Why exactly was it a given I would be running this insane thing? My heart sunk and my balls shriveled at the idea of meeting him there, and even worse, meeting him then. If your karma was iffy (optimistic appraisal in my case), a 1,300-pound Miura bull had every opportunity to savor the pleasure of killing you via a horn up your ass or a hoof on your heart. After all, he was already sentenced to meet his own death in a bullfight before 19,000 drunken maniacs at the arena later that afternoon.
I moped through the gathering crowd over to the church Fisk-Harrison had mentioned and there he was, cheerfully smoking a cigarette. After announcing he was hungover, he offered some pointers about “la curva” in the early stages of the 875-meter course, and the most dangerous area, the narrowed entrance of the ring, where pile-ups of collapsed people, a “montón,” were even more lethal. The six bulls usually covered the entire course in 2:30, averaging 20 mph, but today’s Miuras, he said, were especially fast (they ended up breaking the course record, clocked at 2:05 from gate to gate).
“Remember,” he added, “people are far more dangerous than the bulls. When people are terrified they grab and clench.”
Alexander Fiske-Harrison, who looks like a warm yet poetically tormented version of JFK Jr., registered my lack of optimism, lit up another cigarette and laughed his smoker’s laugh before winking and slapping me on the shoulder. I stood around waiting for the rocket to burst down the street while half-crazed, half-drunk, bemused Spaniards stretched their limbs, hyperventilating Americans with Go-Pros pressed record, Brits with St. George flags painted on their faces waved at the television cameras.
When the rocket finally burst, out of view but still close enough to feel the reverberations, I took full advantage of having been the starting running back for a Canadian Pee Wee football team that was unable to score a touchdown in two entire seasons of activity. The utter disregard for the concept of blocking was familiar, and fortunately, in this scenario we were all clawing and scratching our way in the same direction. Within seconds of picking up the pace along the course, people in front of me fell like the opening scenes of the D-Day invasion in Saving Private Ryan. Then, while running at full clip down a street with thousands of hysterical strangers all around, I stopped hearing the sound of men slipping or tripping and started hearing them being plowed down. This lights a fuse, equal parts awe and terror, as 3,000 kilos of muscle and horn close in. A flat scream drones as people brace to see six hulking versions of Jaws closing in. Like a windshield wiper ready to snap off, I kept looking ahead at falling assholes and checking my rearview until the Raiders of the Lost Ark boulder seemed to part the street of humanity.
The thing is, the bulls aren’t quite tall enough to see until they are on you. I was hugging the outside fence close enough tear my shirt with splinters when I looked back one last time and saw the wave of black and brown shoulders two arms lengths away. They soared past in a flash, brutally churning through the scarlet and white uniformed runners like a Louisville Slugger through a piñata. I tried to tally how many bulls had just run past me, but there was no way to count fear. Then, in a breath, we were at the entrance to the ring as collisions and slips and fall left people dropped all over the place. I hurdled over one in front of me and suddenly found myself in the bullring’s sand, surrounded by 19,000 people. The bulls and steers had already exited the other side. After 30 seconds, the ring, packed with runners, was mysteriously sealed off.
An announcer congratulated all the runners and I wondered if some hokey ceremony was about to start, if we were to receive T-shirts or key chains or something. Instead, a gate swung open at the opposite side of the ring and the crowd roared as a female cow, maybe a third the size of those we ran with, leapt into the ring with taped horns while opening bars from the theme song from Rocky blared over the loudspeakers.
Before I could figure out what the fuck was going on, some demented lunatic ignited the crowd by performing a summersault over the bull’s horns while she galloped across the ring looking for people to toss or trample. We had five minutes with her, surging all directions, until she was ushered out. Then an even bigger female burst into the ring, this time to the A-Team theme song, followed by yet another larger animal and the music from Bay Watch. And finally, just before they let us go, rounding out the group, a nearly 700-pound female tore across the sand to The Knight Rider theme song, trying to dismantle anyone she could into a paraplegic. It was the most surreal 30 minutes of my life, booze and sand, blood and kitsch, the hourglass of a culture leaking and broken.
That night two of Spain’s most famous and acclaimed matadors, Julián López Escobar, “El Juli” and the eye-patch wearing Juan José Padilla, better known as “the Pirate,” after a horn that pierced his jaw and took his eye, fought in the arena. A BBC film editor met me to watch his first fight. Sam’s wife had just given birth to his first son and she was pregnant with their second child. That was why he had not run that morning.
We bought tickets through scalpers and arrived to our nosebleed seats just as six separate bands competed with the crowd’s roar and everyone rose to give Padilla’s entrance to the ring a standing ovation. Suddenly dozens of pirate flags were unveiled by the crowd and flapped majestically in the air. Padilla grinned from the side of his face he could still move after the goring.
I’ve seen enormous prizefights in front of the loudest crowds in America, and as a little boy I saw Michael Jackson live at the height of his Thriller fame, but I have never in my life heard a crowd muster anything comparable to the intensity of the roaring adulation Pamplona’s crowd offered to this matador. He casually strolled to the center of the ring, doffed his hat and held it aloft for a moment, then circled before the crowd in gratitude before tossing it in the sand and turning toward the gate where a 695-kilo bull awaited entry.
Padilla flopped onto his knees and draped his cape over one shoulder as he stared off at the bull with the only eye he had left. The gate burst open and Padilla, a father of two, remained kneeling until the bull lowered his horns. Only then did he whisk the cape off his shoulder, stand and swing it round behind his head. And so it began again…
After Padilla killed the bull, Sam left the arena and did not return. When I joined him at a bar in Pamplona’s main square after the fights were over, all he could do was shake his head.
“I’ll never forget today or what I saw,” he said. “But I never want to see that ever again.”