VINE VOICEon 27 December 2003
Death in the Afternoon is a book about bullfighting, something Englishmen tend to object to on moral grounds. It was also published in 1932, over half a century ago. So why should you read it? For several reasons, in fact. Firstly, because it is a rich historical document: the book is in effect a biography of all the toreros of note practising their art in Spain in the early decades of the twentieth century, and Hemingway is refreshingly honest in his assessments of their merits. In those departments where they excelled, Hemingway was always ready to say as much; but where they were lacking - and woe betide them if they were cowardly rather than simply technically inept - no rod would be spared in disparaging the effect their craven actions were having on the ancient art of bullfighting. Secondly, because Hemingway is a true aficionado, and is able to penetrate to the heart of the aesthetics of bullfighting, persuasively arguing as he does so why the killing of the horses (no longer a feature of bullfights) is incidental, and necessary to tire the bull, who alone is the tragic figure. Death, Hemingway reveals, is the true crux of the culture of bullfighting, it being guaranteed in every fight, but what the Spaniard comes to see at each corrida is not this guarantee of death but rather its antithesis:
'[The bullfighter] is performing a work of art, and he is playing with death, bringing it closer, closer, closer, to himself, a death that you know is in the horns because you have the canvas-covered bodies of the horses on the sand to prove it. He gives the feeling of his immortality, and, as you watch it, it becomes yours.'
It is this toying with death that excites the Spanish imagination, with the most acknowledged fighters being those who calmly take the most risks. Yet none of the matadors mentioned by Hemingway escape unharmed, and few escape at all: Hemingway's standard trick of bringing home the reality is to ingratiate you with a fighter, and then calmly mention how last year in Madrid (almost as if it had passed him by) that same fighter had been tossed by a bull, repeatedly gored, and then took weeks to slowly die. The book also contains a series of photographs that feature matadors being gored or dead in the infirmary, as well as a visual elucidation of Hemingway's descriptions of the features of the fighters. Thirdly, the book tells you much about the author himself: early on Hemingway uses an usual narrative technique whereby he finishes his overview of an aspect of bullfighting by panning back to a semi-comic, slightly absurd conversation he is having with an old lady in a café, which he uses to express his opinions on, among other things, love ('a word that fills with meaning as a bladder with air and the meaning goes out of it as quickly'), what constitutes 'serious writing', and William Faulkner.
Death in the Afternoon is a visceral, passionate narration of a Spanish obsession, as viewed by an obsessed outsider (and in this, Hemingway was clearly not alone). There are some faults, to my mind: in the first place, if you think you have no interest in bullfighting, this text will probably not convert you, since you really need to have experienced a bullfight in order to appreciate many of Hemingway's subtleties. Furthermore, the book can be too list-like in its description of bullfighting's greatest killers, banderilleros, masters with the cape, etc., which can wear the patience at times. Finally, the last chapter, where Hemingway recounts the experiences of life in Spain he was in effect forced to emit from the main narrative if it were to remain a book about bullfighting, is for me unquestionably the most brilliant - but while it leaves you yearning for more description of these, it may be remarked that this may be the hallmark of Hemingway's genius, if in a series of pithy descriptions he can produce a sense of intense wistfulness. This is of course all the more poignant in that the scenes Hemingway describes were soon to be eradicated by the advent of the civil war. A strange book then, doing several things at once, but one of the better introductions to the culture of bullfighting, and perhaps Hemingway himself.