SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Death in the Afternoon’ by Ernest Hemingway

“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”
– Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

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Photo by Joserra Lozano of Jose Maria Manzanares in Linares 28.08.13

(try telling me no one likes bullfighting anymore while looking at this!)

Welcome to the first in the series of Hemingway Tuesdays, where we work through Hemingway’s catalogue for those new to the man and his work. Today is the heavy classic Death in the Afternoon

Synopsis –

Still considered one of the best books ever written about bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon is an impassioned look at the sport by one of its true aficionados. It reflects Hemingway’s conviction that bullfighting was more than mere sport and reveals a rich source of inspiration for his art. The unrivaled drama of bullfighting, with its rigorous combination of athleticism and artistry, and its requisite display of grace under pressure, ignited Hemingway’s imagination. Here he describes and explains the technical aspects of this dangerous ritual and “the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal, and a piece of scarlet serge draped on a stick”. Seen through his eyes, bullfighting becomes a richly choreographed ballet, with performers who range from awkward amateurs to masters of great elegance and cunning. A fascinating look at the history and grandeur of bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon is also a deeper contemplation of the nature of cowardice and bravery, sport and tragedy, and is enlivened throughout by Hemingway’s sharp commentary on life and literature.

If ever there was an author to take on bullfighting, it is Hemingway and his incredibly masculine style of writing. Beware, if you are new to Hemingway, this may not be the best book to start with; his style can take a little getting used to. If you have read The Sun Also Rises, you would already would know the man is possibly the greatest English writer on the subject of bullfighting. This book delves so deeply into the world of the corrida, that readers are only saved from the technical aspects of the art by the strong writing style. The fact that the book is 80 years old makes no difference; prepare to step to the barrier and see the art through the eyes of an expert.

It should be no surprise that Hemingway chose to write this work, as it serves to provide the backdrop to life’s most important element – life versus death. It also shows off Spain and its way of life, as it was 1931 (and also now to some degree). While many books  on Spain tend to talk of the people, the light, the food, the mysticism of the Iberian Peninsula, Hemingway does not do this; Spain isn’t held up as an idol. The author got the feeling that all of Spain could be seen in the bullring, the zest for life against the inevitable glory and defeat of death.

Many people call bullfighting a sport, but Hemingway correctly is firm in calling it an art, a decadent art. Hemingway goes as far to compare the greats of the time, like Belmonte and Joselito with other great Spanish artists such as Velasquez (though, these men all died differently. Velaquez died of illness, Belmonte committed suicide and Joselito died in the ring, so not all the comparisons worked out). Hemingway talks of the pose of the matador, the build of the bull, as if it were a work of art to be admired and studied. The book spares no details for readers, and doesn’t stop with giving readers simple answers and explanations, but digs into both the art and also the mind of those who produce the spectacles.

Hemingway is a true aficionado of bullfighting in every sense of the word. He certainly did his time at the barrier, understanding the feeling of the matador and the crowd. He laments that aficionados not want to see a great matador killed, but an average matador receives no such admiration. The way the bull is killed is under scrutiny from Hemingway as well. A matador can only be praised if he has killed the bull ‘honestly’ no easy or trick swipes with the sword can be taken. The matador must be so close, that when he trusts his sword into the bull, the final chance to be gored is there.

Bullfighting means death, and Hemingway tried to convey how Spaniards understand death better than other countries. A bull with always die in the ring. Even if the fight is a disaster, the animal will still be slaughtered. A matador will eventually die; surely his days are numbered, and he and the spectators alike are aware of this. Hemingway muses that it is better to die in the ring than to die old and forgotten, away from the spectacle and understanding of death and glory (something Belmonte said before he shot himself). Hemingway speaks of pride, which he said was often considered a sin, but it is pride that give a matador enjoyment in what he does in the ring. He waxes around how a matador feels Godlike in the ring, as they are dancing with death, attempting to argue its inevitably.

Anyone who has ever read Hemingway knows his style. It can be wistful and long-winded, or short and sharp, sometimes both on the same page. In this particular book, his hard style is not as energetic as other novels. If Hemingway’s writing is known for anything, it is three things – women, booze and sadness. He can ramble, he can jump around all over the place (as great minds tend to do). This book will not disappoint anyone, and you will feel like you’ve delved in the mind of Spain when you’ve finished this long but engaging book. Personally, action and conversation make a good book, and this book veers off course compared his other work, but anyone who wants to build knowledge of Hemingway must read this book. I must admit that my interest was held throughout Death in the Afternoon because of my passion for the subject matter, something that does not apply to everyone. 

Next week – For Whom the Bell Tolls, possibly one of the best novels ever written.

Want to recommend an author once we have finished Hemingway? Let me know.

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 4: On the road with ‘Blood in the Valencian Soil’

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The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see – Gilbert K Chesterton

There are two things I don’t like – being mistaken for a romance novelist, and being called a tourist. I went to Spain without maps, guidebooks, or a plan for my trip. Yet, I decided to do something that would mix in two things I don’t like, and walked around like a tourist, taking photos of a book about love affairs destroyed by the Spanish Civil War. People in Valencia didn’t look twice at me, such is their relaxed nature. Madrileños looked at me like I was crazy, which was pretty fun. Either way, for several hours, I took photos of my last novel in some of the locations in the book.

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Caught being a tourist at Valencia’s Pont del Real

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Valencia’s Turia is a central point in the book through most of the novel, and in the titles to come in the ‘Secrets of Spain’ series. Who wouldn’t want to visit? I enjoyed sitting in the grass every day of my time in the city.

So here we are, in rough order as they appear in the novel, photos of my book and locations in BITVS. Even if you haven’t read the novel, you can still enjoy some beautiful parts of Spain –

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Chapter one – 1939: view of the Cuenca Convent San Pablo from the Beltrán family home in Barrio San Martín

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Chapter one – 1939: Cuenca’s Casas Colgadas, Hanging Houses, where Cayetano, Alejandro, Scarlett, Luna and Sofía discuss the civil war

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Chapter two – 2009: Madrid’s Plaza de Toros near where Luna meets Cayetano ‘the bull-minder’

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Chapter two – 2009: a walk in Madrid’s Retiro park

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Chapter three – 2009: a night at Madrid’s Ritz hotel

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Chapter seven – 1939: the drop from Luna’s window

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Chapter eight – 2009: Cayetano follows Luna in Valencia’s Turia

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Chapter 11 – 2009: Luna and Cayetano go to Cuenca in search of their namesakes

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Chapter 12 – 2009: Cayetano and Luna get into a fight at Cuenca’s cathedral

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Chapter 13 – 1939: Luna, Cayetano and Scarlett panic run up Cuenca’s Barrio San Martín steps

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Chapter 14 – 2009: a stolen night in Cuenca’s parador

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Chapter 19 – 2009: another visit to Madrid to uncover the Beltrán family secret

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Chapter 21 – 1939: a secret burial in the Valencian mountains

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Chapter 21 – 1939: arriving in Valencia as the war comes to an end

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Chapter 21 – 1939: Placa del L’Angel, where a plan to survive the war is hatched

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Chapter 24 – 2009: a disasterous night out in Valencia’s El Carmen district

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Chapter 26 – 2009: a secret hideaway in the Valencian mountains is found

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Chapter 29 – 1939: panic at the clock tower at Valencia’s port

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Chapter 33 – 2009: Luna goes back to work as a Valencian bike mechanic

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Chapter 34 – 2009 and 1939: a declaration of love (written on Cuenca’s gorge bridge) that is broken and forgotten

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Chapter 35 – 2009: Cayetano hears a painful truth, another barrier to getting back in the bullring

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Chapter 39 – 2009: a bullfighter and a bike mechanic at the Valencia’s Plaza de la Virgen fountain

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Chapter 39 – 2009: the entrance to the Valencia cathedral where the Water Court meet

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Chapter 45 – 2009: a new grave discovered in the Valencia mountains

There you have it! Because I am doing posts on Valencia, Madrid and Cuenca, I didn’t feel the need to go into specific detail about each location, I will save that for other posts. In the spirit of not planning my trip, I unexpectedly ended up in Xátiva. I didn’t want to visit the town again, but the fun trip gave me this photo, standing in the spot where, in 2005, my husband took a random scenic photo. It ended up being the photo that graces the cover of BITVS, but I didn’t have a copy of the book on me that day!

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So, what happened to the copy of the book in the photos? It got autographed and given to a friend who was kind enough to accompany me on a very cold day out in Madrid as I took the photos. Thank you for your good humour and an arm-in-arm stroll in Retiro, in the spirit of the novel. Being able to talk about Spain and the civil war every day was the highlight of my trip.

Up next… Part 5 (of 10) – Madrid Tapas and History Tour with James Blick

*all photos are authors own, with the exception of photos 1 & 2. Owner – Sabine Kern.

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 1: High and Lows of Spain

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Hello! I’m back from my two weeks in Spain. If you were following my public twitter account, you probably got an idea of what I’ve been up to these last sixteen days. It was my first time in Spain as a tourist, I have only ever been to Spain while living there in the past. I have plenty to share, including-

The top ten things I rediscovered about Valencia

The civil war history of Barcelona with Nick Lloyd

On the road with Blood in the Valencian Soil

Tapas and History Tour with James Blick

Bullfighting – Valencia vs. Madrid

Valle de los Caídos: Spain’s most terrifying location

Learning to be a tourist in Spain

Teruel: Spain’s hidden interior

Ávila, Segovia, Cuenca and Toledo: Small towns, big charms

But first, here is a quick round-up of Spain for me in 2013 (in no particular order) –

Highlight of the trip was walking through Valencia’s Turia. I did this every day, but the night before I left, I wandered the park from the Arts and Sciences complex to the Torre de Serranos and it was magical in the late afternoon sunshine. Every city needs a space like the Turia.

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BITVS goes to the Turia

Worst moment of the trip was getting caught in the tour group bustle of Toledo. The place was filled with mindless drones, all walking along, looking at the same few things, one after another. They don’t even go to the Alcazar. Sure, it’s rebuilt, but anyone with half an interest in Spain will know of the bloody war battle that occurred there. It’s a must-see spot.

Biggest surprise in Spain was the level of English spoken. Okay, I’ve been gone nearly six years, but the way people speak has really changed. I also discovered that my Spanish isn’t as bad as I thought.

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English pamphlet in Xativa

Most exceeding of expectations was definitely Madrid. I put this down to the people, despite their reserved nature. I have been to Madrid before, but I saw the city in a new light. I will elaborate in Madrid’s dedicated blog post. Madrid gave me a new sense of confidence, and was the only city to keep me partying to dawn.

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Me and James in Madrid

Lowest point in the trip was when I arrived in Cuenca. The views looked exactly like the photos and that should have been great; but it wasn’t. I got there and had a sense of being trapped far from the whole world. The town got better as I wandered the place, and the bolt-hole bar we spent the evening in made everything okay again.

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Cuenca’s gorge bridge where you can leave a message of undying love – so I did

Unexpected fun came when I met two men on the trip to Segovia. They were celebrating their engagement by visiting Spain. Combined with a lovely English woman, the trip held more excitement that we expected. The wild asparagus at lunch was divine.

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Segovia’s Sleeping Beauty castle

The least surprising thing was the noise level in Valencia. I got more peace on Barcelona’s La Rambla than I did in any location in Valencia. They may have changed the laws on late night noise, but somehow that makes no difference. That doesn’t even count the fiesta going on; regular life is at full volume.

Mixed feelings award went to all the protests going on. I have literally lost count on the number of protests I walked into in Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid. While I admire the Spanish people and their willingness to stand up for their rights, it’s heartbreaking to see what the country is going through.

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Protesting outside banks in Valencia

Saddest moment came when I was taking the bus in Valencia. I saw something out the window and thought, ‘I must remember to tell Dad about that’. My father died horrifically last July. I cried alone on a public bus. Not a great moment.

Happiest moment was again in Valencia, when I first arrived in the city. I hadn’t enjoyed the train trip too much and was feeling a bit low. But after finding the rented apartment, I set off in search of the new Mercadona and it occurred to me how well I know the city and instantly welcome I felt. My six-year absence may as well have not existed. I could have partied all night long had I not collapsed of exhaustion at 1am.

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Iconic horchata in Central Valencia

Most shocking moment is without doubt visiting Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) outside Madrid. It is dictator Francisco Franco’s scary tomb, built by slaves and has the largest Christian cross in the world on top (150 metres). No photo can show the expanse or the horror of this place. Not only is a fascist dictator honoured here, but built into the place is 30,000 unnamed Republicans who were murdered, then dug back up and stuffed into the basilica like padding, without consent of their families. There, a man akin to Hitler or Mussolini, is honoured with flowers, fascist salutes and singing children. I’ll do a separate post, but if there was a God, he wouldn’t go near that place.

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WTF!?!

Spontaneous enjoyment award goes to driving back to Valencia from Teruel. We jumped off the main road and took the CV310 through the Sierra Calderona. This, of course, is the main spot in the Blood in the Valencian Soil. We climbed a dirt road to listen to the silence of ‘Escondrijo’, Luna Montgomery’s country home, meandered through the hillside towns featured in the book, and stopped for coffee at the Blanquet, the cafe in Náquera, which is central for many readers of In The Hands of Love. It was a full and rewarding day.

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‘Escondrijo’ in the Valencian mountains!

I was unprepared for the cold in Madrid. When I first arrived there, it was warm and cheerful. But the final two days spent in the great city were freezing. It made an Auckland winter look like a tropical paradise. I have only ever visited Madrid in summer (the three months of hell), but its ‘nine months of winter’ really crept back to give me a taste of its power. However, it stopped none of the fun. I stopped at Desigual and bought this coat which a dozen people have already complimented me on.

A really disappointing point came when I visited Montjuïc castle in Barcelona. It is a central point in Spain’s history, both during the civil war and the brutality that proceeded under Franco (plus if you have read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game, it’s a must-see). Many famous names were imprisoned, tortured and murdered within those walls. I walked into this location, and people were sipping coke and having lunch on the same cobbles where violated souls perished. Okay, you could probably say this about lots of places in Europe, but it really struck a cord with me. I took the bus back to the city feeling disappointed.

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Outside Montjuïc castle

Unexpected neutrality hit during bullfighting. I am not a bullfight hater. I have respect for toreros. Hell, I write about them. I have never endorsed or enjoyed the murder aspect, but when I went to a fight in Valencia, I felt underwhelmed. I’m glad I went, but sitting high above it, you are disconnected with its reality. When sitting against the barrier at Las Ventas in Madrid, it was a whole other story. Let’s say I got everything I ever needed to know about bullfighting. The constant swirl of cigar smoke did not help the ambiance. I can say with confidence that while I will continue to write about toreros, but I have no need to visit again.

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Las Ventas in Madrid

The most weirded out moment came when I visited Valencia’s port area. The darsena, built to house the 2007 America’s Cup, now lies empty. It looks exactly the same, down to the buildings still branded with sailing teams’ names. The old Prada building, once the jewel of the area, has its sail-fabric walls breaking down at record speed. The walls were made of sails built for the 2003 America’s Cup, and were popular and prized. Now, they are peeling away and left to decay. The whole area looks like a time capsule of my former Spanish life, lying discarded like a stripped corpse. Auckland held the Cup before Valencia, and now we have the Viaduct area filled with parks, playgrounds, cafes, bars and hotels. Valencia could have used their space likewise, but haven’t. No wonder the expensive event was so unpopular with the locals.

What I learned was that I don’t like to travel alone. I don’t mind it, but fun hit more often when other people were around. I spent many days with my friend Sabine Kern on the trip, and with the involvement of people like Graham Hunt in Valencia, Nick Lloyd in Barcelona and James Blick in Madrid, the trip was greatly enhanced.

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Drinking from the porrón in Barcelona. Check out how good I am!

I underestimated how many people read what I have written about Spain. I constantly ran into people who had read my work and wanted to talk about Spain. People held what I had to say in high regard. I consider myself to be an invisible person; I live my life and no one knows what I write. However, in Spain, people have taken notice.

I felt pleased to know that all the details I have put into my Secrets of Spain series are correct. As I wandered the locations in the last book, and the locales of the next novel, everything is exactly as I expected/wrote/needed. There is no need to rush home and make changes.

It felt disheartening at times when confronted with some Spanish people. It was little things – they don’t hold doors for one another, they push into queues like it’s life or death instead of  a coffee order, and walk around like they are oblivious to one another’s needs or feelings. I can only put this down to big city living. I risk sounding like a real country bumpkin here, but those first few days, as I based myself in Madrid while doing day trips, I got back to my hotel and shook my head in disbelief. I wondered if everyone had frayed nerves at the end of each day. I live in a large congested city, but it feels like luxury island living in comparison to the push and shove of Europe. In fact, I despaired until I hit Valencia and all its good vibes calmed me down.

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The procession of la Virgen de los Desamparados outside Valencia’s basilica. My face says it all

Number of plane miles travelled: 40,000 kms (yep, I checked that figure) – 50 hours

Number of times I got asked out on a date: 27

Number of nights where I got decent sleep: zero

Number of alcoholic beverages consumed: too many

Number of mornings I had enthusiasm to get up: zero

Number of times I got accosted by someone trying to lure me into a restaurant: 564151* (*not scientifically proven)

Number of new books purchased and stuffed in carry-on luggage: 18

Number of times lost in a city: zero! That includes walking and in the car

Number of Skype calls home: 10 (internet connection didn’t allow for every day)

Number of times I wished I hadn’t done the trip: 4 (2 of them were in-flight)

Number of kisses given/received: approx 100

Number of  shameless selfies taken: 71

Number of times caught singing in public: 9 (including doing a “Locked Out of Heaven” duet with the airport shuttle driver)

BEST MOMENT OF THE TRIP WAS something that made my heart flutter more than it has in some time. I can’t tell you what that was because what happens in Spain, stays in Spain.

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Gratuitous breakfast photo to finish the post

Next post – The top ten things I rediscovered about Valencia

Click here for the other parts of this series – Spain 2013 in Review

Caroline Angus Baker on ‘Talk Radio Europe’

On Thursday 13 December, I was fortunate enough to do an interview on Talk Radio Europe’s ‘The Book Show’ with Hannah Murray. We spoke about my latest novel, Blood in the Valencian Soil, and a bit about me and my life. It is now on youtube, if you would like to listen again. The interview will be repeated on talkradioeurope.com on Sunday 16 December, at 10am, and is available on the On Demand section on their website for seven days.

A special thank you to Hannah Murray for taking time to call me, and to Rod Younger from Books4Spain for introducing me to Hannah 🙂

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Click here to purchase – Blood in the Valencian Soil – Paperback, Kindle and all E-readers

Click here to read more about BITVS – Blood in the Valencian Soil – Q&A with the author

Click here to read more about the author – Caroline Angus Baker

Click here to see Spain in photographs – scenes from ‘Blood in the Valencian Soil’

Click here to learn more about Night Wants to Forget 2012 edition