Reviews in the National Press

Mail on Sunday: James Owen, July 10th, 2011

Where Hemingway feared to tread

Into The Arena by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

* * * * *

Whatever you think of Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s account of his quest to become a bullfighter, you have to admire his guts. Not literally, happily, but there are times in his year as an amateur matador in Spain in which he seems likely to learn first-hand how cruel the arena can be.

Which perhaps is as it should be. For all his writing about it, Ernest Hemingway never went into the bullring. For Fiske-Harrison, the only way to justify bullfighting is by fully understanding the risks involved.

It is a far fairer contest than fox-hunting. The bulls weigh more than a ton, turn nimbly as ice-skaters and can lift a horse and rider up on the point of a horn. When the greatest current fighter, Jose Tomas, was gored at a bullfight in Mexico, he lost a total of 17 pints of blood.

No wonder studies show that psychopaths and bullfighters have the same unnatural calm body chemistry. In Spain, bullfighters are bigger celebrities than footballers.

But do the artistry and spectacle justify the suffering? Fiske-Harrison’s argument that the interplay between man and bull, when done with the highest skill, merits the tragedy will not convince many readers.

But his descriptions of the fights are compelling and lyrical, and his explanation of different uses of the matador’s capes is illuminating. One begins to understand what has captivated Spaniards for centuries.

This complex and ambitious book examines not only life in the bullring but also Spain’s cultural identity and modern ideas of masculinity.

Fiske-Harrison admits that with each of his fights he knows more, not less fear. When he kills his first and only bull he feels not triumph but overwhelming sadness for a life taken.

His point that the matador’s disregard for his own life in the ring makes him respect it more keenly outside appears incontestable. One only wishes that our own discredited sports stars were as wise.

(This review is not available online, a PDF of the print version is viewable here.)

Daily Mail: Mark Palmer, May 26th, 2011

The Old Etonian Matador dancing with death

A THIRTYSOMETHING Old Etonian sidled into a Spanish bullring and stared at a snorting bull weighing more than 70 stone.

‘I was living entirely in the placement of the bull’s horns, the direction of the blackness of his eyes  . . .  nothing else in the world existed for me, not pain, not fear, nothing.’

No, but most of us would still have made our excuses and left. For Alexander Fiske-Harrison that in itself would have felt like some kind of ritual death.

He’d spent two years waiting for this moment. His parents were among the spectators. His best friend from school was there. He’d trained hard. He’d drunk hard. He’d hung out with some of the greatest matadors of the modern era. All he had to do was slow the bull down with some crafty waving of his red cape and plunge the ‘killing sword’ between the sixth and seventh vertebrae.

Fiske-Harrison (right) is a writer and actor. He penned and starred in The Pendulum in London’s West End in 2008.

In 2000, at the age of 23, he attended his first bullfight while on holiday with his parents and immediately found himself agreeing with the poet Garcia Lorca, who said ‘the bullfight is the last serious thing left in the world today’. Eight years later he was lured into the extraordinary and rarefied world of Spanish bullfighting, ostensibly to see whether or not he agreed with those who want the sport banned.

But also because he couldn’t resist the adrenaline rush.

Others have been there before, not least Ernest Hemingway, the 50th anniversary of whose death neatly coincides with this travelogue. Hemingway concluded that bullfighting was ‘moral’ as it gave him a ‘feeling of life, death and mortality’.

Fiske-Harrison comes to much the same conclusion, albeit after considerable soul-searching, a couple of failed romances and endless Rioja-induced hangovers. Along the way, he persuades bullfighting’s head honchos – including the great Eduardo Dávila Miura – not just to let him sit in the expensive seats in Ronda and Seville but to enter the ring himself and put into practice everything he’s been taught and witnessed on his travels.

He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it.‘In that ring are all the tragic and brutal truths of the world unadorned. It is for that reason, above all, that you cannot ban the bullfight, because it is already contained in the very facts of life itself. All you can do is turn away’.

Or go headlong into it, embracing the pomp, the artistry, the arrogance, the absorbing cultural and historical links that define what Fiske-Harrison calls ‘the dance with death’. He’s so committed to his task that he even takes himself to Pamplona to run with the bulls, where he avoids a goring but still ends up with a bloody shirt. He unearths some interesting facts. A crucial premise of bullfighting is that the bull has never seen a man on the ground before – he is herded entirely by mounted farmhands, who he won’t attack, unlike men on foot, who he will.

Furthermore, the first attempt to ban bullfighting was by Pope Pius V in 1567 and bulls are not the slightest bit exercised by red rags – it’s the movement of the cloth that enrages them.

Fiske-Harrison is guilty of very occasionally sloppy writing, but this is an informed piece of work on a subject about which we are all expected to have a view.

But what I really enjoyed about Into The Arena is that after nearly 300 pages I still couldn’t quite decide whether bullfighting should be banned or allowed to flourish.

Sunday Times: Brian Schofield, May 29th, 2011

Into the Arena by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Bullfighting in Spain is more popular now than in its golden age, finds this study of its drama, and its morality

“Silence! A man risks his life here today!” For the past 30 years, Manolo Artero has stood before the crowd in La Plaza de Toros in Seville and uttered these words, before opening the doors to the bull pen. Then, from out of the darkness beneath the packed terraces, “a half-ton of pulsing muscle” will emerge, moving at 25 miles an hour and desperate for something, anything, to destroy. As Alexander Fiske-Harrison pithily puts it, you can debate the morality of the matador standing before this furious, doomed beast, but before you question his bravery, “You try fighting an effing bull.”

The unexpected backdrop to Into the Arena, Fiske-Harrison’s memoir of more than a year spent following Spain’s “national spectacle”, is the rude health of such an apparently controversial pastime. The self-governing Catalan region may have outlawed the sport recently, and Spanish national television may have dropped it on ethical grounds, but across the country there were over 2,000 fights in 2009 (resulting in roughly 6,000 fatally skewered bulls), more than three times the number held during the supposed golden age of toreo (bullfighting) during the 1930s. The leading matadors earn salaries comparable to the football stars of Barcelona and Real Madrid, have giant entourages of security and management, and seem preordained to marry a former Miss Spain and be featured in Hola! magazine.

But they earn their riches, no question — their bodies are covered with the scars of their trade: punctured thighs, torn scrotums, pierced cheeks, severed arteries. When the banderillero Manolo Montiliu died in that very Seville arena in 1992 (banderilleros place the barbed spears in the bull’s back to slow him for the matador), the beast’s horn had plunged so deep, doctors lamented, that “his heart was opened like a book”.

It is this world of glamour, fame and death that Fiske-Harrison penetrates in search of a solution to the “terrible quandary” of bullfighting: “When done well, it seemed a good thing; when done badly it was an unmitigated sin.” The outcome is a debut that, despite some flaws, provides an engrossing introduction to Spain’s “great feast of art and danger”.

The book equivocates on the history, but the fighting of bulls is thought to have come to Spain (with the Moors or the Goths) in the early Middle Ages — as a pursuit in which knights would joust the beasts from horseback, but would delegate the dispatch of the bull to a commoner, known as a matador or “killer”, who distracted the beast by waving a piece of cloth. By the 18th century, the riders (picadors) had joined the supporting cast and it was the matador who had become the bejewelled star, his cloth now a colourful cape. In the 20th century, General Franco heavily promoted toreo as Spain’s “national spectacle” and Ernest Hemingway made it a world-famous symbol of “grace under pressure”.

The stars of this book are, inevitably, the matadors the author watches from the stands and frequently befriends. There is José Tomás, “the Phenomenon”, often called the greatest torero — but still mortal: during one fight he is gored in the thigh and loses so much blood (17 pints) that the arena’s infirmary runs out, so the crowd fight to donate towards their hero’s salvation.

Then there’s Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez (one of a pair of matador brothers who are mobbed like rock stars wherever they go), who quietly admits to the exhausting drudgery of death he has to endure, “a dozen fights a month for month after month”.

Most compelling of all is Juan José Padilla, the embodiment of an ageing fighter who can’t settle for the financial security he’s already earned, so he ploughs on, tackling the dangerous bulls his more celebrated rivals refuse. In the book’s best set piece, Padilla fights in his home town, Jerez, but with the stellar Tomás also on the bill. Stung by the rapturous acclaim heaped on “the Phenomenon”, Padilla undertakes a madly risky duel with a bull, “giving it an even chance, tearing the fabric of his jacket in a dozen places, blood running from cuts on his legs and torso”. The crowd, realising they could soon see a man die of jealousy, bellow “Basta!” (Enough!). To which he shouts helplessly into the night: “Soy Padilla!” (I am Padilla!)

As Fiske-Harrison watches the matadors train and relax, and even tries a few “passes” himself, the other stars (or perhaps fall guys) of the show slowly emerge: the bulls. Bred for aggression, speed and grace, they are prevented from ever seeing a man on foot until “match day”, to ensure that no memories of the human form dissuade them from charging that distracting, fluttering cape. (The most dangerous bulls are the quickest learners).

The bulls vary enormously in their nature — some refuse to dance their way to death, and get booed off; others are so “brave” that the crowd, and often the matador, plead for the president of the bout to deliver a reprieve. In another startling scene, Fiske-Harrison watches a matador “fighting to save the bull’s life” after the crowd have called for a pardon, making the creature dance and spin with sufficient vigour to warm the presiding judge’s heart. As the terraces chant “Toro! Toro!” the dignitary finally yields and signals for the gates to be reopened, liberating the heroic bovine to a long life of rest and breeding. As Ordóñez puts it, there’s a fraternity between matador and creature, both spilling blood for the mob: “It is like a friend. You do not want to kill it, but you have to, and that is your tragedy.”

Where the book begins to unravel is in Fiske-Harrison’s conversion, over the years, from moral agnostic to defender of the toreo. Bullfighting may have been sanitised — largely thanks to modern medicine’s ability to keep wounded matadors alive (the last one died in 1985) — into a €2 billion-a-year branch of Spain’s celebrity-entertainment industry, but it still has giant ethical questions to answer. Fiske-Harrison’s responses to those questions does not quite convince. His claim that banning the fight would mean the stunning dehesa (meadow) landscape of the breeding ranches “would be turned into farms for beef cattle” is a supposition (75% of Spain’s dehesa is already being conserved without bulls), and his stance that taunting a bull to death is ethically similar to eating a hamburger smacks of desperation.

One of the worst arguments is Fiske-Harrison himself. He resolves to understand bullfighting by trying it, and his book swerves from a fine piece of journalism into a “personal quest” to prepare for a fight. It’s a journey many readers will struggle to stick with. As the author, a bit too self-regarding to be an entirely likeable narrator, races against time to be ready to fight and kill a bull “within the projected publication date of the book”, it is hard not to pray that he’ll fail, sparing an animal a pointless death for one man’s ends. While Into the Arena begins by brilliantly capturing a fascinating, intoxicating culture, it ends by unwittingly exposing its fundamental truth — bullfighting is in part about young men killing animals to show off.

Financial Times: Dan Eltringham, June 4th, 2011

Into the Arena

Alexander Fiske-Harrison watched his first bullfight in Seville in 2000. Ten years later he found himself drawn to the sport and Into the Arena is the result, moving adeptly between matador-training, social history and a sometimes thrilling, sometimes tedious series of bloody fights and sherry-fuelled fiestas.

It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting; the book is at its strongest when he uses his degree in biology to investigate the cruelty question. “Wildlife conservation,” he writes, “is financially underwritten by the bullfights.”

Although Into the Arena is full of intriguing detail – a fighting bull will never get to see a man on foot before it enters the ring – at times its subject encourages a sense of writerly importance. However, the essential incongruity of an Englishman in the ring makes this book an engrossing introduction to bullfighting.

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