Juan Belmonte

by Hugh Gilmore

After some hesitation, I missed a writing deadline for the first time this week. I did give my editor a week’s notice, so I wasn’t entirely remiss, and he encouraged me to keep “plugging away.” The next deadline comes at the end of August, but right now September feels like tomorrow to me.

The editor’s name is Jock Richardson, and he lives in Scotland. He spends as much of the year as possible in Spain, an almost necessary condition, since he edits La Divisa, the most influential English-language bullfighting journal in the world. It is published by Club Taurino of London. I’ve never met Jock, but his letters to me sound gravelly voiced and gruff, and quite strict – in an avuncular way. He sounds as though he’s encouraging a young, stupid person. He does not know that I’m not young.

I’ve mentioned in previous columns this year that I’m writing a novel based on George Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” With a twist. The bullfighter character, Escamillo, who was originally portrayed as a charismatic celebrity dolt, appears in my book as a real, flesh-and-blood man who has hopes and dreams beyond the bullfighting arena. Most notably, he deeply loves Carmen, the gypsy dancer and singer. She loves him, too. Only, her ex-boyfriend stalks her and murders her one day. Escamillo is bereft, inconsolable, set adrift in the world to make sense of the senseless.

While his wounds are still raw, the deadly “Seville Love Triangle” becomes the daily stuff of the newspapers and magazines of the day. The story goes international. Within two years Georges Bizet, the French composer, together with his producers, has created and mounted for the Paris Opera-Comique an opera that defiles Escamillo’s love of Carmen. Bizet’s opera portrays her as a free-loving slut, her ex-boyfriend, Don Jose, as a victim of her wiles, and Escamillo as a smug dunce.

Escamillo is enraged. He interrupts his bullfighting schedule to go to Paris, intending to confront the opera company presenting “Carmen” and demand that they stop.

Part of his plan, at one point, includes trying to seduce every female principle of the cast. He soon discovers the truth of the old adage about the horrors of “answered prayers.”

I can’t tell you more just now. I must return to my theme for today: Escamillo is a matador; how do I learn enough about torero (the techniques and art of bullfighting) to make my character convincing?

The technique part is fairly easily answered by reading, watching movies, and talking to people who know tauromachy (the study of bulls and bullfighting). And, oh yes, I know, I should spend the next 20 years in Spain. (I will, just as soon as I clear my calendar. By the way, an important 20th-century matador/writer/artist, John Fulton Short, grew up originally in Philadelphia.)

The harder part of the quest, knowing the mind of a matador, is not as accessible. I’m reading biographies, memoirs, autobiographies and interviews as fast as I can. I’d like to know, for example, if there’s a way that matadors carry themselves so that you’d know one if you saw him in street clothes. Would you notice grace? His confidence? Or arrogance? Does the image projected in the arena carry over into civilian life?

Are all bullfighters alike in their mental makeup? They must be in many ways, but how would each one differ? Not so much in performance style, but, let’s say, when he pauses before a mirror, or lies awake at light unable to sleep, or meets a woman he’s attracted to.

The best novel on this subject that I’ve read so far has been Vicente Ibasco Ibanez’ “Blood and Sand” (1919). The best non-fiction book has been Juan Luis Belmonte’s “Belmonte: Killer of Bulls – The Autobiography of a Matador” (1935). I’ve read it twice. The high quality of the writing and the author’s honest insights prompted me to want to write a re-appreciation of it for a new generation. The editor of La Divisa liked the pitch and gave me the go-ahead.

I began rereading, this time taking notes. Before long I knew too much to write the simple article I’d intended and not enough to write the complicated one that seemed necessary. Anyone who writes about a subject he enjoys must face this problem.

Here’s an example: Belmonte’s book is published “as told to” Manuel Chaves Nogales. Chaves Nogales was an award-winning, reform-minded, left wing Republican antifascist. The book was written on the even of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Where does Belmonte end, and Chaves Nogales begin, in a book like this? Furthermore, the book appeared first in Spanish. The only English translation available is that of Leslie Charteris, the English mystery writer (“The Saint” series), published in 1937.

In order to state what was unique about Belmonte, I need to sift through Belmonte-Nogales-Charteris to intuit who is really speaking at any given point. And I can’t limit my portrait to this one book, so I’ve sought to read other matadors’ autobiographies.

Unfortunately, matadors (and athletes in general – worldwide) prior to recent times seem not to have felt that their lives deserved autobiographies. The few I’ve found were written in Spanish and haven’t been translated. Why, oh why, did I let my high school counselor steer me into studying German? (Boys’ high schools back then saw German as the language of science and engineering.)

There’s a sentence I’d like to write for the La Divisa article – if it is true: “Belmonte is impressively honest when he writes about such matters as being unable to confess ignorance of a subject in conversation, or when he writes about a mid-career spell of boredom with bulls and bullfighting, even while in the arena.”

But I don’t know whether his honesty was unusual among toreros or not. I must read more autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, and interviews.

I explained all this to Mister Jock Richardson, the editor, and he’s given me several good leads to help me learn what I need to. Here’s hoping I make that end-of-summer deadline and get published in La Divisa, my first international writing credit.

In the meantime, my novel “Escamillo’s Song,” slowly but steadily grows.

See: enemiesofreading.blogspot.com for more of Hugh Gilmore’s writings.


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