Bullfighter Anotnio Ordonez with Ernest Hemingway

by Hugh Gimore

I take long walks every day, trying to understand Escamillo, the torero from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” I’m trying to write a novel about his love affair with Carmen, but I don’t have the feel of him yet. I can’t see him. I don’t know whether I’m outside him, watching and waiting to see what he’ll do and say, or inside him, feeling his pain, thinking his thoughts. Sometimes in life all problems are point of view problems.

In the meantime, I walk around, look at the trees and sky, smell the green earth coming back to life, and wait with an open heart for the solution to crawl inside me and lock the door behind it. The “click.”

Also, I must do background research. On so many subjects I feel overwhelmed. Spanish culture in 1875, for example. There’s a small topic, eh? And Bizet’s “Carmen,” inside and out. And, of course, bullfighting. I’m not sure if this book will be worth the effort. And time – I have many other books I’d rather write.

Escamillo’s a mystery to me. I do know that he has retired from the bullring. And like any man, he must have been formed and scarred by his occupation. His work history must shape his reactions to the world. But how? What does he know that a lawyer or tavern keeper or teacher cannot know? And vice-versa, of course: in what ways is he ignorant. For all the bloodshed he has seen, in what ways has he led a sheltered life? What facts of life does he not know? I want to write a story that concludes with knowledge attained. Is that not the goal of all good literature?

These questions will sort themselves out as I go along. There’s another kind of knowledge I need right here and now: What is a bullfight? What are its rules? How is it conducted? How do men cheat at it? That would be good to know, wouldn’t it? Men everywhere cheat at everything. How IS this sport kept honest? It is a “sport,” isn’t it? If it is, or isn’t, does it matter? Some say it is theater. Others say ritual. Others, barbarism.

For several months I’ve been reading books about bullfighting. Despite my limited Spanish, I’ve been learning its vocabulary, its history, its technicalities, and its rationale. I’ve rented both documentary and fictional movies about bullfighting. I’ve watched about a hundred clips from YouTube. For a gringo, marooned here on the Chestnut Hill Peninsula, I’ve learned a lot. And I conscientiously avoided reading Ernest Hemingway on bullfighting.

When I was young and a fan and determined to read through all of Ernest Hemingway, I simply could not read through “Death in the Afternoon” nor its sequel, “The Dangerous Summer.” Those are his two major writings on the subject. But two weeks ago I wondered if I’d be missing something important if I didn’t try again, so I found copies, and last week I read them both.

It is with very mixed feelings I tell you that these two books are terrific. From the very first pages of “Death in the Afternoon” I felt I had found the ingredient, the perspective, the eye for detail I had been fruitlessly searching for as I read the more objective and historical explanations of the “corrida.” In my youth I lacked the vocabulary and knowledge of the rules needed to understand Hemingway’s bullfighting books.

Hemingway wrote for those who already knew the corrida. He wrote as a baseball writer, for example, does. He assumes you know what a curveball is and why a pitcher would throw one and that you can appreciate the nerve it takes to throw one with a 3-2 count and bases loaded and two out in the ninth inning of a tie ball game. Everyone enjoys home runs, but only those with knowledge get to enjoy the inner game.

Hemingway was very well respected in Spain, especially in bullfighting circles. Or so it seems. It’s possible he had such intimate access (he traveled with the famed Antonio Ordonez, for example, and often watched the fights from the barrera, (the wooden fence that encircles the ring) because the athletes’ vanity was stroked by having a famous writer describe their exploits. The Howard Cosell factor.

Whatever the case, I very much enjoyed both books. If anyone reading this knows of other, detailed, insider books about bullfighting I’d be grateful to know about them.

I did not enjoy Hemingway’s mystical side, his constant need to find the “art” in bullfighting. And I did not enjoy the stupidity of his classifying every creature in the ring – whether two-or four-legged – as either “brave” or “cowardly.” Taunting death is not brave, and respecting the brief lives of our fellow creatures is not cowardly.

Bullfighting is sometimes exciting, sometimes graceful and artistic, and always cruel, degrading, and indefensible. It should be banned.

I realize my attitude presents quite a barrier to getting a grip on my character. I’m hoping that what I lack in understanding bullfighting I can make up for in understanding love. Equally dangerous undertakings, wouldn’t you say?