SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Death And The Sun: A Matador’s Season In The Heart Of Spain’ by Edward Lewine

Death-and-the-Sun

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

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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.

The most special day of Francisco Rivera Ordóñez

Francisco Rivera Ordóñez source

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.