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I don't approve of killing animals for entertainment, and this book did not change that disapproval. I endorse this book because of its qualities as a model for introducing a subject to a new learner, rather than for its subject matter.
If you like bullfights, you will like this book because Death in the Afternoon will probably expand your understanding of what you see. If you want to go to bullfights, this is a good book also because it will tell you how to do so in the most enjoyable way for you.
Most people will never attend a bullfight, because of ethical concerns, some personal dismay about their potential reaction to the violence and horror of the event, or due to lack of opportunity (bullfighting is mainly done in Spain and Mexico). Many of these people will have some interest in understanding more about bullfighting or the appeal and spectacle of the event. Death in the Afternoon provides you with a thoughtful way to satisfy any curiosity you may have.
Hemingway set out to write "an introduction to the modern Spanish bullfight and attempt[ed] to explain that spectacle both emotionally and practically." I think he more than succeeded.
Hemingway leads you gently into the subject as though you were chatting while seated at a comfortable table in an outdoor cafe on a pleasant afternoon sipping your favorite beverages. In fact, for part of the book, he invents an old lady whom he converses with for comic effect.
He tells you about his own experiences throughout beginning expecting "to be horrified and perhaps sickened." It turned out that this was not his reaction at all. He liked the bullfight, and saw 1,500 bulls killed before writing this book. He also reports that many people he took to fights often experienced different emotions than they expected. Women who disliked violence did not automatically dislike bullfights, and macho men did not necessarily like them.
The central emotion that good bullfights create is of grace in the face of death which is inspired by the danger the matador faces.
In the period about which he writes, the 1920s into 1931, bullfighting was in a decadent age brought about by a fascination with coming ever closer to the bull's horn and doing more and more elaborate cape work. In addition to the death of many bulls, this also brought about horrible injuries and death for virtually every bullfighter mentioned. That brings special meaning to Hemingway's assertion that bullfighting is not a sport in the usual sense but rather a drama about the bull's dying. But you will also come to know the tragedy of Joselito, Manuel Granero, and Maera.
Despite my objections to bullfighting, I was tremendously impressed by Hemingway's powers of observation. You will learn about so many miniscule aspects and details of bullfighting, that it will leave your head spinning. For example, a bull that erratically charges to one side or another has to be handled much differently in each pass than one who is like a mechanical bull and is very predictable. Bullfighters prefer the latter, but some of the best work is with the former if the bull is malleable. Does the bullfighter try to teach the bull, or simply survive the experience? The reaction of the bullfighter tells much about his character. The reaction of the fans tells much about their knowledge and character. You feel like you are looking at the world through many revolving kaleidescopes as images are considered in the context of other images, like an unending house of mirrors.
The book says a lot about character -- the character of those involved in bullfighting and the fans. Although Hemingway admires the honor of those who face death bravely and act properly in the bull ring, he also points out that too much honor is dangerous. In essence, he makes an argument against the values of bullfighting even though he is an aficionado.
He is honest with us, by also sharing his own failed experiences with trying to learn to fight the bulls.
The book is greatly aided by many detailed and impressive photographs that illustrate the points in the book that would otherwise be lost on the reader who has not attended a bullfight. There is also a 61 page glossary of terms to help you handle all of the new concepts he throws at you.
There are some incidental benefits for those who decide not to attend bullfights. Hemingway provides many detailed descriptions of the geography, weather, and characteristics of the people in different parts of Spain. I got several ideas for places I would like to visit on future trips as a result. At the end, he laments that he could not work in the rest of Spain into the book beginning with the Prado. I shared that lament, because a similar book on Spain by Hemingway would have been even more interesting and valuable to me. I can only imagine what his other wonderful descriptions would have been like.
I suggest you take this book and outline it to see the process by which Hemingway takes you from being a neophyte to a quite well-grounded person about bullfighting. How could you do the same for a subject that you need to introduce many people to? If you learn from his story-telling skills, you will be well-rewarded for your experience.
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on 18 July 2001
A collection of what seems to be stories loosely sewn together to form a very long essay on the virtues of bull fighting. It looks closely at the world of the matador, explains every rule of the fight in great detail and shows his great enthusiasm for this very Spanish of sports (though it still takes place in some areas of France and Portugal).
You've got to have the stomach for this one and it is a hard book to swallow if you're remotely sensitive to the plight of innocent animals. Some of the pictures are a bit too graphic though you do get the other side of the coin with some rather frank pictures of matador's thrown over bulls horns and even in one or two cases, lying dead in the morgue.
Hemingway does have a winning style though and he is intensely readable and somehow you get swept along even when the subject is uncomfortable reading. He is undoubtedly a brilliant writer and he has a passion for the sport. If anything it's a learning experience in the hands of a master.
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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.
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on 10 June 2015
Me gustó mucho este libro. Me enseñó mucho sobre la forma de arte que es el toreo. No estropeado por el tiempo

I really liked this book. Taught me a lot about the art form that is bullfighting. Not spoiled by time
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on 15 May 2014
A detailed look at a controversial subject, delivered in Hemingway's unique style. Uncompromising, interesting, though a little long in places. If you don't like bullfighting, this is not for you; if you have no opinion on it or are undecided, this is an interesting analysis of the sport, the people in it and the culture surrounding it... a culture soon to be lost.
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VINE VOICEon 23 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.
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on 22 June 2014
Read again after a number of years. Still has the power to pull you in to the world of bullfighting in its golden age at the time of Hemingway. Now a shadow of its former greatness, this book gives you a real feel for the blood and guts.
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on 13 April 2013
I've just been to my first bullfight, thought it graceful, brutal, balletic, macho, exquisite, bloody, yet had no idea what it was all about. I bought this book, about which I'd heard much, hoping to find out. The pictures alone are compelling. It was written in 1939 before horses were protected by padding so in Hemingway's time, the horse would die first. It looked a far more primitive and riskier business that it did in Seville last month. I think I regret the passing of the real-ness of it all but not of the pain all concerned must have experienced at different points in the performances.
It is odd that a developed country like Spain still allows bullfights to continue and yet it allows us a brief peek into a world nearly over forever. Hemingway was fascinated by it - I think I am too.
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on 2 February 2015
The last of my Hemingway books is by no means the least. My interest in bullfighting is about the same as fishing, big game hunting and horse racing - yet I was utterly charmed and captivated by this tour de force of obsessional writing. I now understand bullfighting in ways I never could anticipate, and that is down to the great skill of the author.

Hemingway takes you through every aspect of bullfighting and then some. The scope of the book is remarkable - everything about bulls, bullrings, bullfighters, the structure and meaning of the fights - and more- fills this enormous monograph that would be awarded a PhB - Doctor of Bullfighting, if there was such a degree. It exceeds the detail on fishing (Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises) and big game hunting (Green Hills of Africa). Somehow Hemingway makes his obsessions public and attractive. He helps you understand this tiny world, and given that nearly 65 years has past and we have had 'Feminism' re-shape out consciousness, it is more than a tiny triumph for his craft.

If I liked bullfighting at all, this would be a five star review. But I don't - even now!
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on 16 October 1998
One of my favorite pieces of writing--by Hemingway or anyone else--is the last chapter of Death in the Afternoon, where Hem laments all the things about Spain that are NOT in the book. And then, in naming those things, he creates a fantastic mosaic of keenly observed, beautifully described aspects of Spain. You don't even have to read the rest of the book or care about bullfighting.
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