The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

WITHIN the sta­dium the crowd has gone quiet, the bull hunched in the mid­dle of the sand-cov­ered arena with blood trick­ling down its back and head dropped in ex­haus­tion. For the past 15 min­utes it has been chased and goaded and stabbed. With the shad­ows length­en­ing as the af­ter­noon fades, this an­i­mal is now ready only for death.

The mata­dor strides to stand in front of it, his hand raised high in tri­umph. A whis­tle comes from the stalls in re­sponse, a sound quickly picked up and repli­cated by other spec­ta­tors. The sta­dium is a ca­coph­ony of noise — and none of it is cheers.

‘‘ They are an­gry,’’ says Car­los Flores, sit­ting be­side me. ‘‘ They think the mata­dor has played the bull badly, weak­en­ing it too quickly so as to de­prive the con­test of drama.’’ He is the son of one of Spain’s pre-em­i­nent bull breed­ers, and had in­vited me to watch the fight. ‘‘ Not good,’’ Car­los says. ‘‘ Not good at all.’’

Hear­ing the crowd’s dis­plea­sure, the mata­dor tries to end the con­test with a flour­ish. He kneels down. He throws his arms up in the air. He leans his body a few inches above the out­spread horns. All for noth­ing. There is barely a flicker from the bull in re­sponse.

Car­los is as un­in­ter­ested as the rest when four horses, their driver crack­ing the ground be­side them with a whip to drive the team for­ward, drag the bull’s corpse from the arena. He is al­ready cran­ing his neck to­wards the en­trance arch­way to catch a first glimpse of what will come next.

‘‘ Maybe this bull will fight,’’ Car­los says. ‘‘ The day will get bet­ter, I hope.’’

It is a sen­ti­ment that could be di­rected not only at this fi­esta but at the state of bull­fight­ing in Spain as a whole — in­deed at the very state of Spain it­self. For bull­fight­ing, like Spain, is in trou­ble. While the past few years have seen Spain’s econ­omy tank, un­em­ploy­ment soar to 26 per cent and youth un­em­ploy­ment to 50 per cent, the sport that more than any other sym­bol­ises the coun­try has fallen into its own cri­sis. At­ten­dances have fallen by 40 per cent in just five years. In 2008, some 3295 cor­ri­das were held across the coun­try. In 2012, it was 1997 and last year, ac­cord­ing to some re­ports, fewer than 500. Cash-strapped towns can no longer stage fes­ti­vals in­volv­ing bull­fights or run­ning of the bulls.

In re­sponse, Span­ish mata­dors have gone to Latin Amer­ica, par­tic­u­larly to Peru, seek­ing cor­ri­das. Bulls be­ing bred for the ring are be­ing sent to abat­toirs. Even some of the coun­try’s most fa­mous are­nas, among them the Plaza de Toros de Las Ven­tas in Madrid, have been ac­cused of not pay­ing bull­fight­ers what they are owed.

To try to find out what has gone wrong, and what it means for the fu­ture of the sport and Spain’s re­la­tion­ship to it, I trav­elled to the es­tate of El Palo­mar. Set within the sweep­ing vista of Al­bacete, this has been home to Car­los Flores’s fam­ily for 200 years. They have made the es­tate one of Spain’s most revered bull­breed­ing cen­tres. Its 18th-cen­tury manor house even has its own bull­ring.

The present owner is Sa­muel Flores, Car­los’s fa­ther. Now in his 70s, he is adamant bull­fight­ing has weath­ered crises be­fore and will do so again.

He is dressed in the mod­ern uni­form of the Mediter­ranean gen­try: green flan­nel jacket with el­bow patches, checked shirt and chi­nos. On the veranda of his home, uni­formed wait­ers serve the fam­ily lunch. In the pas­ture be­neath, bulls laze in the heat. The ef­fect is one of time­less­ness; of a world un­changed de­spite present trou­bles.

‘‘ Bull­fight­ing will ... keep on go­ing,’’ Flores pre­dicts. ‘‘ It’s not only the big fe­rias in the big cities. It’s also the bulls that they run in the streets, in the lit­tle vil­lages. Bull­fight­ing is never go­ing to stop. What the sport needs is for the econ­omy to im­prove.’’

He points to the num­ber of young peo­ple want­ing to visit bull-breed­ing es­tates like his own, and to the num­ber of wannabe mata­dors en­rolling in bull­fight­ing schools. This should not sur­prise any­one, he says, as the sport is ‘‘ part of the cul­ture of Spain’’. So could there be a Spain that ex­ists with­out bull­fight­ing? Flores gives a dismissive shake of his head. ‘‘ The gov­ern­ment wouldn’t al­low it.’’

Spain’s present gov­ern­ment cer­tainly wouldn’t. In Novem­ber, the Span­ish par­lia­ment de­clared bull­fight­ing part of Spain’s cul­tural her­itage and Prime Min­is­ter Mar­i­ano Ra­joy has promised to chan­nel more money into the sport’s pro­mo­tion.

Many of the present gov­ern­ment’s most vo­cal op­po­nents are against the sport, par­tic­u­larly in the in­creas­ingly in­de­pen­dent-minded re­gion of Cat­alo­nia. There, the gov­ern­ment has voted to ban bull­fight­ing as out­dated and cruel. The re­sult has been in­ter­preted as be­ing as much due to Cat­alo­nia want­ing to em­pha­sise its dif­fer­ence from the rest of the coun­try, es­pe­cially bull­fight-mad Madrid, than any­thing to do with the de­bate over an­i­mal cru­elty.

Anna Mula is the key fig­ure in the cam­paign­ing group Prou! (Enough!). When we meet, she is adamant the Cat­alo­nia vote was noth­ing to do with pol­i­tics and all about the idea that bull­fight­ing should have no place in a civilised coun­try. ‘‘ To con­done th­ese pub­lic spec­ta­cles is to trans­mit the mes­sage that gra­tu­itous vi­o­lence can some­times be tol­er­ated, even ap­plauded and ad­mired,’’ she tells me. ‘‘ This bru­talises the so­ci­ety that tol­er­ates this vi­o­lence.’’

It is a be­lief she has held since her grand­par­ents took her to her first bull­fight when she was six years old. ‘‘ I was cry­ing and cry­ing,’’ she re­calls. ‘‘ I didn’t un­der­stand why peo­ple didn’t save the bull.’’

When I ex­plain to Mula that I worry crit­i­cism of sports such as bull­fight­ing by those in the West could too of­ten be an at­tempt by one peo­ple to im­pose their stan­dards on another, she is adamant bull­fight­ing no longer re­flects any mass cul­ture in 21st-cen­tury Spain. As ev­i­dence, she points to a poll last year that showed only 26 per cent of the Span­ish pop­u­la­tion now supports the sport and 76 per cent op­pose the use of pub­lic funds to help it. ‘‘ Sup­port­ers say bull­fight­ing’s tra­di­tional but a lot of tra­di­tions have been banned in the past,’’ she says. ‘‘ We have to keep only the tra­di­tions that so­ci­ety ac­cepts.’’

Seville, with its bull­ring dat­ing back to 1761, has long been con­sid­ered bull­fight­ing’s spir­i­tual home, and the city’s an­nual, week­long Fe­ria de Abril is one of its blue-rib­bon events. Dur­ing the fes­ti­val, the city’s Plaza de Toros de la Real Maes­tranza is packed each day, while out­side lo­cals in tra­di­tional Span­ish cos­tumes pa­rade in horse­drawn car­riages. Here, if any­where, I knew I would be able to see if the sport could still gen­er­ate pas­sion.

This year, the tour­na­ment’s big­gest draw was the mata­dor Juan Jose Padilla. He is a leg­end in the bull­fight­ing world af­ter he was hor­rif­i­cally gored in 2011 — the bull’s horn pass­ing through his jaw and out his left eye — yet re­turned tri­umphantly to the ring just five months later, de­spite now hav­ing to wear an eye patch.

Padilla is Car­los Flores’s friend so I met him shortly be­fore he fought, and then trav­elled with him to the arena. When we ar­rived, the mata­dor’s ho­tel suite was un­be­liev­ably hot; the tem­per­a­ture is kept high to keep his mus­cles loose and ready for the heat of the sun.

His dresser was fit­ting him into the tra­di­tional satin suit of the torero, its pink cloth em­bla­zoned with se­quins and gold thread. He was al­ready in his em­broi­dered white shirt and short, black neck­tie. Now he was be­ing squeezed into his trousers, the ma­te­rial

Juan Jose Padilla, who lost sight in one eye af­ter be­ing gored at a bull­fight in 2011, above; an­i­mal rights ac­tivists stage a protest in Pam­plona, left

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.