An immoral spectacle or a metaphor of life? Bullfighting never fails to provoke a reaction. In this unusual travel memoir, Edward Lewine embarks on an eye-opening journey around Spain to track a typical season for the country’s biggest bullfighter, Francisco Rivera Ordonez. Fighting bulls while fleeing celebrity, Spain’s most infamous matador lives both his public and his private life on the edge. The last in a distinguished bloodline, he is plagued by the legacies of his great-grandfather, the greatest matador of his day and revered by Hemingway, and by his late father, who was gored to death in the arena. With sixty-two fights and a hundred and twenty bulls to confront in the coming season, Francisco must also endure the aggressive attention of the paparazzi who pursue him for news of his colourful private life and breakdown of his marriage to a Spanish duchess. LEWINE witnesses at first hand the thrilling routine of a top bullfighter – the rituals, the risks, the stage fright – and assesses the significance of bullfighting in the context of Spanish identity. This national obsession encapsulates the uniqueness of Spanish culture.
Photo and blurb from Random House
If you are not a fan of bullfighting, read my quick disclaimer or keep your opinions to yourself.
Edward Lewine’s book Death and the Sun is by no means new; published in 2005, I have read it several times, and have just finished reading it again while studying bullfighting. The book follows a make-or-break season for famous bullfighter Francisco Rivera Ordóñez, known as Fran. Fran comes from a famous line of bullfighters; his father was the famous Francisco Rivera Pérez, ‘Paquirri’, who died in the ring when Fran was 10. Along with his brother Cayetano, they would form another piece in a famous bullfighting family; their great-grandfather was Cayetano Ordóñez, who was a muse for Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, and his grandfather was Antonio Ordóñez, who featured in Ernest Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer. It seems Fran was always destined to become a bullfighter, the son of the most famously killed bullfighter, and he and his brother, born to a tabloid queen, are no strangers to being dressed in the traje de luces, the suit of lights.
This book covers Fran and so much more. The author sheds light on bullfighting for anyone not terribly knowledgeable on the event, the history, the traditions, the animals. No detail or aspect is left untouched. Following Fran through a season, shows an eventful eight month period for the bullfighter; Fran has just announced his separation from his wife Eugenia Martínez de Irujo, 12th Duchess of Montoro, with whom he shares a very young daughter. The tabloids are loving the story; his mother, in an ever-pressing need to be heard, shares tales of the relationship, something which only serves to make Fran’s season more difficult.
Fran is at a crossroads; use his skills to become one of the greats or fade into obscurity, like so many before him. The author follows Fran through all stages; the fights, the reactions, the travelling, the entourages and their thoughts. A whole world of glamour, traditions, bright lights and heavy pressures swirls about Fran, the ring leader of the bullfighting circus. Fran is no stranger to anyone interested in fighting. He has been followed by multiple writers, but this is an all-new angle on the man behind the family name.
Rather than being a travel book on Spain, you see the country through bullfighting eyes. There is tradition and drama, formalities and losses, people crying the usual bullfighting clichés and the zest for the melodramatic. The book also touches on bullfighting as a whole – addressing many of the cries from those who hate the entire event. Man against death. The bull will always die, that is not in question – but would death of the man be suitable, a loss, or a disappointment? Of course not.
The sections of the history of bullfighting are excellent in their detail, the stories of the bull-breeding is concise and yet never dull, all details are acknowledged so the reader can feel part of the exclusive world. There can’t be guide in English as well-written or thought-provoking as this. How a bullfighter travels and what his team have to say, earn and like is there, laid out in perfect clarity.
Fran is a difficult person to see in the book. While the characters all attempt to make themselves known, Fran almost seems to be behind a curtain, not quite letting out who he really is. He paints the picture of a man surrounded yet somehow solo, heaving under a huge weight of expectation, and yet finding himself not living up to those expectations, real or perceived. Frustration is evident with bulls which fail to live up to what Fran needs in order to cement his name in the ring.
Fran’s personal life is in total disarray, but Fran barely mentions it. Maybe it was painful, perhaps he wanted to keep it quiet while his ex and his mother continued to talk to anyone who would listen. Maybe he just didn’t care; sometimes divorce is a weight lifted. But no doubt the author covered Fran as who he appeared to be – reticent, strong, quiet and perfect for the role the suit of lights expected from him. Who Fran is in private, perhaps no one will know for sure. This book is perfect for anyone interested in bullfighting, and anyone who wishes to learn needs to look no further than Death and the Sun. I am quick to toss a book that doesn’t catch me early on, yet I’ve read this four times. This is a book about souls who live in a world which divides opinion like nothing else.
Francisco Rivera Ordóñez source