The following essay was written by Jack Dylan Cole, a British expat who works as an English teacher and writer in Lima, Peru. See his book on Amazon, On Cowley Road, or his author page on Peru Reports. Jack accompanied me to the bullfights at Plaza de Acho on December 4.
See my previous posts on bullfighting:
I assume that my animal-rights comrades have not been to a bullfight. The corrida was attended by thousands of Lima’s richest elites, soaked up and near falling through the gates for the last of the season’s “good slaughter.”
“Kill your darlings,” said Faulkner, and with a hoard of cigarettes, cigars, rum and wine and the steady cavalcade of pisco vendors, I bore witness to what few of my progressive stripe ever will. I studied up the week before the show. Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved illustrates the human animal squealing in its love of gluttony. With his cartoonist in tow, “We both look worse than anything you’ve drawn here.” In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway details the technicalities of bullfighting, and even describes the horse disembowelment as a “comedy.”
From these I’d garnered a nightmarish scene of hysterical crowds vomiting over themselves and each other, ready to watch toreros brave their skinny flanks in a sacrificial dance of bloodshed.
Six bulls would come before a plethora of encircling blades. “So they get one ear for a good fight, two for outstanding, and both ears with the tail for a performance of the saintly,” my blood-crazed editor explains.
To counter the rum burning my throat, I’m slugging wine – both from leather boots – when a hush descends. The gate swings open.
If there’s one thing immediately apparent, the toro bravo is not bred for hamburgers in a life of 18 months standing around being overfed. These free-range organic boys are protected for four years, treated like the godly sacrifices of antiquity. The bull rages, cracking his horns into the fencing, ready to kill. But remember, there is another animal far better at doing that.
The toreros provoke the bull waving the great purple and yellow capotes. This first stage slowly tires the beast as the crowd warms up, crying the lexiconic, “Olé!” The chant is believed to derive from the Arabic music incarnation of “Allah,” when a dancer appeared to transcend into the realm of the godly. The cheer spread to Spain and morphed into “olé.”
The four-part cuadrilla team dart across the sand and behind the stiff boards of safety as the bull comes crashing into them.
Now comes the blindfolded horse, ridden by the picador with his 10-foot lance. You’ll hear from old corrida die-hards that the animal feels no pain. “It’s bred not to feel anything,” or “its adrenaline masks any feeling.”
But while watching the horse take the full armored weight of a charge (unlike Hemingway’s era, when the horse would have been gored and often left dangling its entrails), the mounted picador drives a lance between the bull’s shoulders. Blood floods down his back and over his face. There is pain in that body. His head drops as the picador yanks the lance free using his foot. The bull gazes about, tired and frantic, having taken his first step towards death.
The second stage is that of the banderilleros, the matador’s three teammates armed with daggers attached to long sticks. They cross them over their heads and step out into the center, no luring capotes for them. One after another they take on 600 kilos of bleeding anger. When the bull charges, the banderillero runs at a right angle before dodging the horns and jumping, driving the daggers through the bull’s shoulders. The bull bucks, goes wild, and with up to six blades hanging from his back, he knows he’s in trouble. The cheers come and my sadness deepens.
Out he steps. It’s the tercio de muerte, the Death Stage. The matador wields his flimsy sword under a short-cape muleta. It’s only him and the panting bull, tongue out, staring down his mortality. This is the least understood part of the corrida de toros. It’s in the hands of the matador as to how far he risks his life, and the more risk he takes the greater the show, the greater the applause, the “arte y emoción.”
Peru’s Greatest struts out and pompously tosses his 20-year-old quiff. He is Andres Roca Rey and he treats the bullring like a catwalk, prancing there in his traje de luz, or “suit of light.”
Andres has had a horn in the rectum, one in the mouth knocking out two front teeth, and he gets gored only to come back fighting like a one-eyed drunken mariner. He takes the third bull.
The muleta is the small red cape used to conceal the sword as he pulls off extraordinary swishes or “veronicas.” He takes his eyes off the beast and flicks the muleta in a pirouette behind his back. He never dodges the bull, but buries his heels. He chooses to take a goring if it comes.
“He’s too good,” my blood-crazed editor says. “He’s going to be dead.”
He turns from his adversary, rallying the crowd time and again until he begins the faena, the slaughter, preparing for the bull’s ending. The key is to have the bull’s feet in line with its shoulders so the sword can be driven directly into the aorta. Failing this the crowd will jeer, disgracing the matador, who must drive a dagger straight into its spine.
Andres brings the hilt to his chin, beckoning silence from the crowd. The two stare into each other’s eyes. The bull jolts forward with one final swing of its horns, misses, takes a few more steps before falling to his knees with blood pouring from his mouth, fright in his eyes.
Andres had pounced while spinning his abdomen away from goring and found the perfect spot. Not even looking back, he passes the beast to stroll out into the center of the ring to claim his arena. But while the entire crowd showers him with adoration, I look to the bull and imagine what he’s seeing – thousands on their feet while utter fear grabs him and he knows. He knows he’s done.
I’m teary-eyed and silent. I am watching an animal die in an arena not of its choosing. I’m watching Death itself.
I’m watching a man play with my greatest fear out there on my behalf, taunt it, rally me into not fearing it either until he thinks I’m ready to watch him destroy it. That’s what bullfighting is – thousands of people freeing themselves of what awaits them in a storm of drunken euphoria, rising to death, matching its barbarism with their brutality and being grateful that for this day, it fell upon a brave beast and not themselves.
I’m thinking in wine truths for the later stages. I’m clapping shoulders in a nicotine fog with everybody while some Peruvian who lived in Quebec screams lewd French in my ear. He’s got the red-blood-vessel bursts of drink and the look of “Oh how I live for this!” while a rotund Limeño to my right gives me a fat-fingered cigar. “That’ll fuck you up,” my blood-crazed editor says.
So while it blows I find myself watching another picador stabbing a fierce bull which seems to put the cuadrilla on edge. Then they miss four of six banderillas, so the bull’s pissed but not tired when Spain’s Jose Manzanares has to grind the beast down with only his little red muleta.
The crowd is restless and Manzanares finds charming them difficult. The bull is too erratic and nearly flips him, shooting his confidence. He’s lost it and we all feel it. He’s not ready for the final sword but lunges anyway, leaving it half in the bull, who squirms and wrests it free.
Scorns come and people leave their seats in disappointment. The bullfighter misses again, probably piercing a lung as blood comes from the beast’s mouth. He’s coughing and it isn’t until the third lunge that the bull drops. One of Manzanares’s men falls upon it with a dagger, viciously stabbing the back of his head before he’s shamefully dragged out. The bloody violence prompts a pang of fear in my gut.
No “olé” for Manzanares this time. “Marica,” the Peruvians explain. My blood-crazed editor thinks it was a difficult bull, but he admits he is a gringo and has no idea.
I once watched the slaughtering of a pig. The animal was screaming in fear and pain as they sliced its throat, blood gushing into a bucket. It died over some 10 minutes. I felt I owed some respect to what I eat.
We gringos are disgustingly hypocritical. Have you ever seen your hamburger die? Do you actually know what happens in the slaughterhouse? If you want to take on cruelty to animals, start by looking at that ambiguous steaming puck of flesh you are putting in your mouth, not the barbaric killing in the corrida. For the former, I am willing to fight it at your side.
The Spaniard couldn’t deliver what the crowd wanted in that last fight.
It’s up to Andres, El Oro de Peru to redeem the ring and he’s kissing his mother at the fence before fixing his montera hat for the sixth and final bull. Immediately he throws his montera to the sand, which usually comes before the Death Stage.
Andres strides into the center. He calls for his team to stay back so he’s alone with the fiery beast. Astonished cries hail down from the crowd while the bull makes his first charge, and the crowd gasps as the 20-year-old slowly drops to his knees.
We’re all on our feet as Andres raises his face to the sky, spinning with the bull passing behind him through the capote as horns brush past his neck.
After a few more passes Andres calmly gets to his feet, beckoning the crowd with his courage. His team does their part, the picador stabs successfully and the banderilleros land their daggers.
For the final stage, Andres takes his time in leaning his pelvis towards the bull while taunting it to pass on either side of him.
Then it happens.
He’s too bold and the bull catches his leg, flipping him into the air and attacking him on the ground. His teammates come and draw the bull off, but Andres is back on his feet.
The bull is lined up, the sword finds its mark. While the cuadrilla encircles the bull amid its death throes, Andres faces it from mere feet away calling his team back. He raises his arms, staring into the bull’s eyes as it gazes back before slumping onto its haunches. The crowd goes wild.
Andres wins two severed ears and takes a victory lap with them raised above his head. Women throw bouquets of roses at him.
The two other matadors enter the ring for a lap of honor. They are also applauded as the crowd is on their feet. The show is over.
I’m conflicted over what I’ve witnessed.
“It’s our tradition” is a common excuse. Just because a people have done something for centuries doesn’t bare any justification. Chinese “medicine” is almost single-handedly clearing Africa of the great mammals. Halal seems centered upon the beasts suffering while they hang and bleed to recited prayers. This is also said of bullfighting.
Humanity slaughters millions if not billions of animals every year. If bullfighting was banned, what do you think would become of the bulls? Are we such a species that these animals would simply be granted freedom like the slaves of old? Our restaurants indicate not.
And yes, the meat is eaten once the bull is slain in the corrida, concluding four years of peace no other animal we consume ever has.
When death comes, some of us will be bleeding out, knowing there’s no escape. But for most it will be a slowly creeping thought seen through the weary mist of painkillers surrounded by those we love.
Orwell mused that perhaps it is better to die violently, for “what weapon has man invented that even approaches in cruelty some of the commoner diseases?”
I feel grateful for the bull’s life, watching it being tied by its horns and dragged out like Hector behind Achilles’ chariot. That’s how I want to go, upright with chest out, raging in death’s face, because when it comes, that is the only choice I will have.
Watch Andres Roca Rey cut four ears on his last bull at the Dec. 4 corrida below.