SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Into the Arena’ by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

IntoTheArena

Alexander Fiske-Harrison spent a season studying and travelling with the matadors and breeders of famous “fighting bulls” of Spain (and France and Portugal. ) He ran with the bulls in Pamplona and found himself invited to join his new friends in the ring with 500lb training cows. This developed into a personal quest to understand the bullfight at its deepest levels, and he entered into months of damaging and dangerous training with one of the greatest matadors of all, Eduardo Dávila Miura, to prepare himself to experience the bullfight in its true essence: that of man against bull in a life or death struggle from which only one can emerge alive.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Every time I write something regarding bullfighting, I get plenty of hate mail, regardless of the content. Just the mere word ‘bullfighting’ sends people into a spin. There are those who constantly come on here and say I deserve to endure genital mutilation for my writing (which only makes you as grotesque as how you view bullfighting, so STFU). I find it interesting that no one who comes to my site to hound me has ever actually asked my personal view on bullfighting, and logic of abusers seems so ridiculous. When I wrote about rape or spousal abuse, no one asked me if I endorsed those subjects, so for that reason, I have decided to leave comments closed on this new post. Putting up with harassment is not a sign of strength. I shall not be passive, and I shall not be attacked either.

Into the Arena by Alexander Fiske-Harrison is a book I read a few years ago, but never reviewed. I decided to read it again recently, while doing some bullfighting research. I have been reminded how much I enjoyed this account on the subject.

It is argued that bullfighting, when done well, is a work of art, and a sin when done poorly. These two differences are a beautiful reflection of the arguments for and against the battle of death. The author shows how, after first seeing fights in 2000, until his full-fledged love affair with the art form years later, the only way to truly understand bullfighting is to be emerged in the world of the toreros. Bullfighting in the 21st century has triple the number of fights of the so-called golden-age of fighting in the 1930’s. Bullfighters earn enormous sums like football stars, marry beautiful girls and appear on magazine covers. Between the fights, the endorsements, and the celebrity caper, there is an industry worth over €2 billion a year. It would be easy to be swept away by the glamour aspect.

Fiske-Harrison is staunch defender of bullfighting. Some could say it could be a case of being caught in the bright lights of the toreros. Instead, the author turns to some of the greatest names of the current era – Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, a celebrity wherever he goes, and who speaks of the death in his life as part of a weekly routine.  José Tomás, ‘The Phenomenon’, some say the greatest performer of the age – who performs with great skill and nearly dies in the process. A horrific goring in Mexico shows the lengths the man will go to for what he believes is greatness. Then there is Juan José Padilla, known famously for being the torero who had his eye gored from his face. One famous fight shows Padilla fighting in the same event as Tomás, and nearly gets gravely injured due to vanity, wishing to be the most beloved of the night. Padilla is the epitome of those who live for the skill and thrill.

But this book doesn’t seek to raise the profiles or talk up the participants. This book also addresses the moral conundrum of the event. The hate of bullfighting can be as strong as the love, and the book does its best to counter some of the arguments – that the bulls are treated more humanely than your standard animal raised to become a steak (which I would agree with). Many who argue against bullfighting think little of the grotesque nature of the death of their dinner (or, like me, find steak-eating appalling). The book also discusses the economic and ecological benefits of bullfighting. While these arguments do have their merit, those opposed to the spectacle would no doubt be able to dismiss the claims.

Bullfighting is Spain’s ‘feast of art and danger’. That is mostly certainly true. The book takes a turn as Fiske-Harrison attempts to get into the ring himself, to learn the moves and nature of the animals. You can hate bullfighting all you like, but rarely does anyone have the courage to face one of these strong and aggressive animals. The animals are bred specifically for their speed and aggressive behaviour, and are fast learners. There will also be bulls who do not show the enthusiasm for death that the crowd would want (I’ve seen scared and disinterested bulls in the ring myself). The toreros have a great affinity for the graceful animals, but they must be killed. In the end, the audience is the beast while the man and animal square off for entertainment.

The world of bullfighting is a mixture of death and machismo – two things that can seem extremely unappealing. The author manages to sneak in and out of the world with great fluidity, makes up his own mind based on research and personal effort, and doesn’t waver from his personal opinion. While some see bullfighting as men with inflated egos killing animals to show off for a crowd, where the death of animals is both cruel and pointless, Fiske-Harrison attempts to portray the world of culture, tradition, respect and of bullfighting’s essence – the struggle of life and death. This is a great book told through one man’s perspective, but whether you enjoy the read may depend on your position on the subject.

Because the subject is so decisive, I will continue to both read and write about it, from both sides of the argument.  However, I’m not sure there is any piece of work that will ever sway a reader from their opinion. Some may get caught up the glamour and popularity, and many can respect the animals, but can readers endorse the kill? Who knows. You need to look past the kill to see the men and culture behind it, an action not everyone wants to try.

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