On the second-last of the corrida, the bull catches Perera, goring him through his thigh and throwing him 10 feet. Blood pumps on to the sand from Perera’s femoral artery. Instead of leaving the ring, though, Perera ties his own torniquet to staunch the flow and fights on, killing the final two bulls. In the weeks that follow, it emerges that, in the goring, Perera’s scrotum was torn open. He fought on, despite one of his testicles hanging out.
These harrowing events dominate the opening chapters of Into The Arena, by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, an Englishman who spent two years immersed in the world of bullfighting, his field report illuminating the much-reviled bloodsport and culminating with him entering the ring himself.
“Ernest Hemingway did a pretty good job of writing about bullfighting, and if I hadn’t got in the ring, then all I would have done was update him, so it needed to be about actually doing it,” Fiske-Harrison says.
“I had some very good introductions through Spanish friends, who put me in touch with breeders and matadors and a lot of them were guys who, as long as you’re under 50, would say, ‘get in the ring – why not give it a go?’ If you pass a cow three times, then you can call yourself a bullfighter, a torero, and it turned out I wasn’t too bad at it.”
Bulls are colourblind but respond to movement. Hence, matadors use a cape, its ripples luring the bull into a charge. The key is that, even as the mass of bovine rage hurtles towards them, they remain rooted to the spot, turning, slowly, drawing the cape away from their bodies, keeping it an inch or so above the passing horns, lest the bull discover there is nothing behind the cape. Crucially, they must do it all with panache, with bravado, with elegance.
Fiske-Harrison trained with mothers of bulls, less lethal but still big enough to ensure a painful learning curve.
“The bruising was obscene – it’s like learning to play tennis while under gunfire,” he says. “And then you just sort of break through – more often, the animal was following the cape and not careering into me. You start to draw this thunder around you and it’s astonishing. It’s a completely unnatural movement. And when you mess up with a live animal, there’s a lot of damage inflicted.”
Indeed, Juan Jose Padilla, one of the matadors most prominent in the book, was horribly gored two months ago. He slipped and a bull’s horn went through his jaw and out his left eye-socket. Padilla survived, after five hours of surgery, but lost the eye and one side of his face was paralysed.
“Poor guy – it was the end of the season. He wasn’t taking any huge risks or going all out to impress,” Fiske-Harrison says of Padilla. “He appears to have tripped, which is insane because he’s 38, he’s been doing it for so long. I can only wonder what caused it – I dread to think it was a late night out because when he goes out, he really goes out.
“He’s vowed to return to the ring with one eye. It could be a problem, because he will have no depth-perception.”
In Spain, Seville particularly, bullfighting is a big deal. The best-paid matador, over the course of maybe 100 fights a year, gets paid £7m; only the pay cheques of the top footballers and biggest Spanish actors exceed that.
“In Seville, it’s hard to walk into a bar without finding a bull’s head on the wall,” Fiske-Harrison says. “Even little roadside cafes next to the motorway have photos of bullfighters on the walls. It’s everywhere. It’s all-pervasive.”
The matadors are not the only stars. There is, of course, no show without the bulls. Most cattle are bred for docility but fighting bulls are the complete reverse.
“They are incredibly aggressive, very quick and very strong, with a different body shape to what we’re used to seeing,” Fiske-Harrison says. “They’ve got these great big shoulders and an enormous goring muscle that runs along the back. They’re very twitchy – their head’s always moving – if you go past them in a field, their eyes will just lock on to you and follow you.
“You have to shut down your instinct to flee, to get the fuck out of there. If you slip or get knocked over, it is a horrible feeling when they come for you with their horns. They are genuinely terrifying animals, like machines that won’t stop until you switch them off by whatever means.”
Outside Spain, the ‘switching off’ stirs the anxieties of animal rights groups, some of whom would ban bullfighting. Fiske-Harrison, however, makes a persuasive argument about the hypocrisy of such objections – the welfare of fighting bulls is, for example, indisputably higher than that of factory-farmed beef cattle. So why is it acceptable, Fiske-Harrison asks, to kill animals for the aesthetics of food or fashion, but not for bullfighting?
“People get blinded by emotion and by anger – by the idea that anyone would want to see an animal damaged and damaged again and then killed,” he says. “So their real argument is against the virtue of the audience who wants to watch. But it is illiberal to argue that everyone conform to their set of ethics if there is not a strong welfare argument.”
For Fiske-Harrison, bullfighting is an outlet for a part of the human psyche that cannot be shut off.
“I came to regard bullfighting as necessary or, at least, worth it – an embodiment of Spanish culture. The rest is just the price you pay,” he says. “These matadors are terribly skilled and brave – they’re trying to create something of beauty. Their courage is undeniable, but there’s something cold there as well – to keep putting their lives on the line like that, to keep dealing out death with a sword. They are unusual men in an increasingly mundane world.”
Words: Tom Sturrock