A.L. Kennedy: On Bullfighting

Kennedy, A.L. (2000), On Bullfighting, Yellow Jersey Press
ISBN 0-224-06099-6

Blood. That’s what you expect when you hear the word „Bullfighting“. Blood. Cruelty. Spaniards in tights. Bleeding Spaniards in tights. In terms of literature, the one writer who immediately comes to mind is Ernest Hemingway, the most ‘macho’ of American writers, who wrote a breathtaking book about bullfighting, about the corrida, literally the running of the bull, Death in the Afternoon. Hemingway’s persona has so dominated any writing about the corrida that A.L. Kennedy, in her own account of the spectacle, economically called On Bullfighting, even visits a moderately famous bar to be able to tell a bar story, because „there has to be at least one bar“ in a book about bullfighting. Bullfighting has come to be seen as a province of the masculine, and just as machismo, has come to be regarded as outdated, outmoded. So, if this wasn’t also a decade of growing awareness of animal rights and ecological issues, this could have been a comeback decade for bullfighting in the non-Spanish speaking world given the state of feminism these days and Kennedy’s book, first published in 1999, would have been eerily trendy.

That said, it’s not actually a good book to associate with any sort of trend. On Bullfighting is a wondrous little book, hard to label, tough to slot into a place on the shelf. It is an intimate book, discussing matters of personal relevance, discussing pain and loss, bringing up sadness and exhaustion of the soul. On the other hand, it is quite an earnest, serious discussion of bullfighting, filled to the brim with facts and observations. Kennedy is careful, systematic, providing contexts and varying perspectives to the things she discusses. It is also a book on travel, on meeting a different country, a different culture, while at the same time having the same encounter on the page, reading books, an article. This is a perfect book. Perfectly calibrated, perfectly written. It’s smart, sane, beautiful and enlightening.

The narrative of the book starts in a room in the writer’s native Scotland, as she is about to step from a ledge and end her life. She chooses a quiet day so she’s not “gawped“ at when she dies, because “she’s had enough embarrassment for one life”, nor does she want to hurt or discomfort someone, since, after all, “[i]t’s only me I want to kill.” This situation came about due to a chain of events, including the loss of a loved one, making her “rather averagely brokenhearted” and, perhaps more importantly, the loss of her writing. We learn that she hasn’t written anything in a while:

I am a writer who doesn’t write and that makes me no-one at all. I don’t look very different but I have nothing of value inside.

She lives in a flat that she bought so she’d have room to write, it’s an apartment that contains a writer’s study which seems to her, now, a useless room.

It’s a bit strange to read this in a book that she’s evidently written afterward, and it demonstrates the irony, the inadequacy, ridiculousness, even, of such acts, which she is all too well aware of. But that does not keep her off the ledge. As the mighty Jean Améry, in his classic apologia of suicide, Hand an sich legen (review forthcoming), pointed out, the ridiculousness is caused by the ‘logic of life’ that governs much of our thinking, an imposed set of priorities, things as they ‘should’ be, an expression that refers, of course, to a conventional rule, irrational in the blind obeisance and self-reproducing logic it demands, like similar irrational idiocies like strict manners (all this depends upon the extent; there are cautious, simple versions that I would not describe as I have the stricter, more elaborate version).

So there she is, on the ledge, ready to take the leap. She’s taken off her shoes, which she does for anything important that demands her full attention, and waits, sinks into the moment, until, well, until an atrocious song is played, Mhairi’s Wedding, “pseudo-celtic pap” (listen to a rendition here). It mars the moment, divesting it of any kind of dignity, and thus prevents her from taking the leap. Instead, she takes an offer to write about the corrida and plunges herself into the research and the writing, even if it’s just to see whether something will come of this. From these beginnings, she spins a book that is a description “as accurate as possible” of the corrida, but it’s also about encounters on the frontier between life and death, it’s about faith, dignity, about, au fond, the human condition. I’m not reaching for too strong a description, because Kennedy’s interweaving of personal fear and faith and the fear and faith that permeates the spectacle, produces a potent mix that sheds light on far more than one person’s drama or the corrida.

Bullfighting is about taking and accepting personal risks, but not in the way that a Formula 1 driver or a boxer does, because, as Kennedy points out, the term “Bullfight” is woefully inadequate:

[T]he corrida is not, accurately speaking, a bullfight, although this is the standard English term for it. No man, as has often been noted, can actually fight half a ton or so of bull. What happens in the ring is more complicated, repellent, fascinating, grotesque, sacramental, ugly, ritualistic, haphazard, sacred and blasphemous than any fight.

It’s hard to improve upon this quote if you want a good and concise summary of two thirds of the book, as Kennedy spends much time looking into the history of the corrida, and relating it to literary, religious and historical contexts. She’s never scholarly, it’s just that when she needs to explain something, she has just the right facts on hand, presented in the right way to make sense of things. Because that is what it’s all about: making sense of things. Much of this book consists of preparations for her first actual corrida that she will watch with her own eyes, facts presented to us while we also follow her path through Spain, visiting places that are important to the corrida or at least to the history of the corrida. She reads stories while traveling and she tells us this. And she tells us stories, stories that are not clothed like stories, more like facts, but in actuality, these are stories.

Stories of the homosexual poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a huge fan of the corrida, who was murdered by fascists in the streets of Grenada, maybe for political reasons, maybe for his homosexuality. And stories of the Inquisition, of streets that converted Jews and Moors had to walk along to prove their conversion. Stories of dying matadors, of old matadors who play with bulls on their farms and shoot themselves when they’re no longer able to. Stories of poems about toreros, stories of dying horses, of ears cut and laps granted. Stories of modern commercial pressure taking over. Stories of vengeance but most of all: stories of fear. Ritual and faith is constantly evoked. Faith in surviving the next encounter with the bull. And ritual to assure this. Matadors are, Kennedy tells us, highly superstitious. After all, their life is on the line each time they go out there, in the afternoon, courting death, with glittering sword, and the traje de luces, the garb of lights. Stories of people stepping up to a ledge twice in an afternoon, meeting the bulls.

But we already established that the corrida is no actual fight. Kennedy tells us that trickery abounds. Bulls are slowed, weakened. When she describes her first corrida, she explains how the picadors and banderilleros, the first two waves of people attacking the bull, sticking various sharp objects in it, butcher the bull to such an extent that all that is left is a slow slab of meat waiting for the coup de grâce. Ideally, the matador only hurts the bull once, when he delivers one precise jab with his sword. In the meantime, he plays with the hurting, bleeding, tired animal. He has twelve minutes do do this. Twelve painful, long minutes for the bull, who isn’t even always killed as he should be. More often than not he’s hacked to death. The three waves of attacks all depend upon skill, and skilled killing of a bull is rare. Whatever merits, aesthetic or else, the corrida may have, can only be attributed to the good variety of it, the skilled one. I’ve seen clips of mediocre banderillero lancing their spears against a bull online. How I know they were mediocre? Because I’ve also seen clips of El Juli do it.

El Juli, whom Kennedy talks at length about, is one of the superstars of his profession, possibly the highest-paid matador in history, and one of the very few who sometimes does their own banderillero work (you can see small clips of him doing that in Shakira’s video “Te Dejo Madrid” (click here)). He’s elegant, direct, precise. His performances are like elegant dances with the bull. When he lances his banderillas, I’ve seen him reach right over the horns and let them fly, thus bringing himself right into the most dangerous zone of all. Because this is where the danger arises. This is where the encounter with death takes place. Here, where the torero places himself over the bull’s horns. The matador needs success, even the mediocre one, and in order to achieve success it’s not important to kill a bull, no the bull’s death is a foregone conclusion, it’s important to place yourself in danger, be brushed by the bull, reach over the horns, step to the side fractions before the bull turns his head.

Toreros are frequently injured, but the bull has little to do with it. The bull has been tortured and butchered into submission. He’s dangerous now, very much so, but only on close distances or when the matador makes a grave mistake. It’s about faith. Matadors are not suicidal. They have faith in things working out, in not being gored, in turning at the right second. In the end, it’s the matador’s decision. This is what Kennedy tells us, over and over again. Her stories always revert to the situation that is sketched at the beginning and is thus shown to be more than just the story of a lonely woman on a ledge. It’s the instinct, the urge to do something, to matter, or the absence of such an urge. And she finds it in the men who pretend to fight bulls but actually fight themselves. Thankfully, Kennedy spares us a discussion of animal rights here, because she knows as well as most of us do, that there are very few among us whose eating habits allow them an outrage that is not hypocrisy. Kennedy dives first into the details, then into the actual fights and returns then to herself again.

Which, of course, she reflects as well in this little marvel of a book. In a way it exemplifies James Clifford’s concept of travel which includes travel that the reader of a text can undertake. In On Bullfighting we have all sorts of travel rolled up into one. She reads books, travels the country and finally experiences a corrida. And all of this is narrated, from the outside as well as the inside. We see her on the stone steps of an arena, carrying two cameras, one pair of binoculars and a notebook. She’s an anxious observer. Anxious of her powers to record what she sees. To return to Jean Améry and the conventional opinion, the logic of life, force-fed to everyone. Yes, this is luxury, to be able to reject life, to endanger life, and it’s not something to do lightly, but it’s also a right or it should be. As we see Kennedy watching herself we cannot but see her also with the eyes of society and though she travels to Spain, she carries her own culture with her like a snail and warps our reading and understanding, which, again, is reflected in numerous ways. Read this book if you know little about the corrida and want to learn more. Read this book if you want your brain and heart to be engaged. Read this book if you want to read a great book. It’s small but one of her best, and she’s one of the best, in general.

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3 thoughts on “A.L. Kennedy: On Bullfighting

  1. Pingback: A.L. Kennedy: On Bullfighting - World Literature Forum

  2. Pingback: Eating, Killing, Whining « shigekuni.

  3. Great review, as always… I’m just thinking of this relashionship between literature and bullfighting – this idea suggested by this possible mix-up between the author and the protagonist you bring back at the end, and I would like to mention a text you surely know: it’s a preface for Michel Leiris’s autobiography, L’Âge d’homme, titled : “De la littérature considérée comme une tauromachie”. The author identifies himself with the torero facing a deadly situation. Literature is like “l’ombre d’une corne de taureau” (the shadow of a bull’s horn).
    Leiris was very close to Georges Bataille, whose Histoire de l’oeil (Story of the eye)introduces in one of the last scenes a torero, Granero (Leiris saw Granero’s death – a true story – when attending a corrida in Madrid). This awful scene creates a link between death, sex and literature (this sexual and morbid phantasm is one of the most important sources for Leiris’ works).

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