Of Beasts and Heroes
Trumpets heralded the entrance of the matadors. They emerged out into the fanfare, clad in black, armed with swords. Their assistants followed, waving to the crowds, striding forward under the afternoon sun. The picadors were the last to join the procession. They entered upon armour-plated horses; long, sharp spears under their arms. The crowds cheered and whistled while they all paraded on the sand. Finally, the troop dispersed and left the arena empty. A man came out with a placard held aloft, then exited. Everything fell silent….
Guadalajara flaunts a stately presence. Located in the western province of Jalisco, Mexico, this grandiose city supports an abundance of regal edifices. It is a well-ordered colonial vision. Immense, tree-lined avenues reach through its interior, while monuments and plazas pepper its historic heart. Guadalajara is also lauded as Mexico’s most Mexican city. It is home to such national institutions as the Mexican hat dance and the Mexican rodeo. It is the spiritual Mecca of mariachi musicians, and reputedly the best place in the country to pick up that longed after sombrero. While not strictly a Mexican institution, bullfighting is also pursued avidly in Guadalajara. Every Sunday afternoon, between October and March, the population gathers at the Plaza de Toros Nuevo Progreso for a good old fashioned display of macho daring and bravado.
The distant origins of the fiesta, the bullfight, are Greek. One has only to look to Cretan bull cults or the myth of the Minotaur to confirm this. Originally, the bullfight was a kind of ritual slaughter that gained popularity with the Iberian tribes of what is present-day Spain. There the fiesta endured for centuries. When the Spaniards brought it to Mexico 500 years ago, Moorish influences had already transformed it into a supreme display of machismo. Ultimately, however, the meaning of the ritual has never changed – the bullfight symbolises man in spectacular contest with death. That had also been Hemingway’s great vision of it, his great literary inspiration.
So I bought my ticket and waited at the terraces outside. It was hot and I drank beer. I drank a lot of beer. I tried to feel like a man – crude and violent and bloodthirsty. Gradually, the terraces filled up with patrons. They were real floosies. All hair gel and dark glasses. All smartly ironed shirts with wool jumpers draped over the shoulders. They sat around tucking into steaks. Then they lit up fat cigars and laughed loudly. They’d brought along their brats for the occasion who scrabbled under the tables with water-pistols. Meanwhile, the penguins rushed around with trays, stooped over, lighting cigarettes for anyone who dared to look important.
Once they’d opened the gates, I entered the arena and took my seat in the sun. I’d bought a good, cheap spot, high up on a concrete bench. Down below, little lackeys raked out the ring. Meanwhile, vendors made the rounds with beer barrels and paper cups, crying out, ‘Cerveza, cerveza, cerveza!’ So I drank a few more and waited and browsed the programme. Six bulls had been selected for the afternoon’s festivities. Like wrestling heroes, their images were pasted against gaudy backgrounds. They all looked mean and dark and dangerous. Each of the visiting matadors had a page of their own too. They struck up dashing poses and flaunted names like ‘Manuel the Man’ and ‘Jose the Beautiful’.
Once the seats had filled, and the contenders had made their ritual parade, everything fell silent. It began. Death did not come storming out amid snarls, saliva, a cloud of thundering sand. Rather, it emerged with a brief and excited canter, stabbed in the neck with a spike. It drew to a halt in the centre of the ring, confused, twitching vaguely. The matador’s assistants took turns to provoke it. They’d emerge out from behind little walls, swishing their capes, then retreating. Once the beast was mildly agitated, the picadors, the horsemen emerged from a gate. They circled the animal and stabbed it up with their spears. Everyone roared with glee. Then the picadors exited.
Finally, the matador himself entered to much cheering and applause. The bull was bloody now, and leaking all over the sand. The matador affronted it until it made lunges at his cape. Everyone cried ‘Ole!’ It went on like that, until the bull had slowed some, and the matador retrieved a set of coloured spikes. He got him in the neck, time after time. The beast bled everywhere, kicked madly, threw its head, tried lamely to shake off the hanging skewers. It was severely weakened now, stumbling, visibly drained. So the matador fetched his death sword to finish it off. Everyone loved that bit. Everyone howled….
The ring emptied and they dragged off the heap with ropes and horses. The lackeys came out to rake down the sand. Then the ritual began again, almost identical. This beast had even less inclination to fight than the first, and it took extended taunting to elicit a charge. The matador was especially flamboyant with his torture. He’d make girlish little leaps, dances, poses. Whenever he wounded the creature, he made triumphant gestures to the crowd. When finally the beast could take no more, it trotted to the edge of the ring and glanced up at the audience. Emitting a few noisy snorts, he sank to his knees and died. Everyone booed. The matador rushed over and stabbed up the corpse something bitter. His honour, his reputation had been tarnished….
The third bull had more spirit than the others. He emerged at a gallop and made a roaring circuit of the ring. He went for the matador’s assistants in turn, half-near breaking his head on the walls. He had them worried, but his doom was inevitable. Out came the picadors to deliver the first death blows. He went for them too, with some enthusiasm. It took several spikes for him to even begin to slow. The beast charged around with six spikes hanging from its neck, bleeding, wheezing, moaning. Finally, the matador finished the thing and it lay there useless. It had been a brave fight, but strength had not prevailed.
When the fourth bull trotted out to trumpets, I decided I’d had enough. I was drunk. I growled something sbout ‘bullshit machismo’ and stumbled for the exit. I figured Hemingway was full of crap. Death is snidey coward with a swishing cape. If I’d witnessed anything of eternal truths it was that men are weak and cruel and hopelessly in love with their cocks. They’ll always club to together to take down the strong thing – with swords, guns, fists, sticks – the more vicious the better. I didn’t see any kind of cosmic drama, I didn’t see any of that.