The only thing more grotesque, ridiculous and downright unsporting than bullfighting itself would be banning it altogether, says Andrei Navrozov
PASEO DE HEMINGWAY goes nowhere now. I’d made it to the last bullfight in Pamplona, the Catalan town beloved of Papa. On a stuffy night in July I watched as a bull named Andador, with a flick of the horns identical to the one that had secured Spain its place in the World Cup final some days earlier, ripped off a famous matador’s ear — that deeply symbolic organ of which since time immemorial Spanish husbands threaten to deprive their wives’ lovers — and then raised him overhead in jealous triumph like a bale of straw.
In the ensuing weeks, Catalonia’s regional government voted to ban bullfighting, while a month later, in August, following the rampage wrought by another bull on the spectators’ terraces in Tafalla, it appeared inevitable that Navarra would follow suit.
Let us take sides. A distinctive tradition like the corrida is above all a point of view, and it behooves any intellectual worth his pair of gold-rimmed spectacles to defend the right of others to express it. Just as, following the maxim attributed to Voltaire, the good intellectual ought to be prepared to die — or at least to proclaim his readiness to die, while opening offshore accounts and availing himself of a second passport — in defence of any opinion contrary to his own. And so, indubitably, I am against the bullfighting ban, as, incidentally, is the King of Spain, who is on record as saying that the day the EU outlaws the sport will be the last day of Spain in the EU.
In practice, as often the case, things are a tad more confusing. On arrival in Pamplona my wife and I had been asked to put on the costumes for the upcoming ritual murder, all white with red scarves, which are the uniform of the town for the duration of the San Fermin festivities. In Russians of any age and background, more surely, perhaps, than the black shirt in an Italian or a brown one in a German, this symbol stirs certain connotations, chiefly, I would argue, the persecution of the unarmed few by the armed many.
A focal point of propaganda for the entire history of the Soviet regime was the heroic tale of Pavel Morozov, a Young Pioneer who ratted out his miserable kulak of a dad to the secret police. In reality, of course, it was people like the elder Morozov who were the defenceless victims, and here we were in Pamplona, donning the clothes of their tormentors and cheering them on to the kill. Long before we entered the arena, it was clear that the bull was the individual in the story, while like the rest of the townsfolk we represented the bloodthirsty conformity of humankind.
A FIGHTING BULL like Andador weighs half a ton. If he had been up against a conformity armed with only a blade of Toledo steel, this would have brought to mind the ancient Russian sport of bearbaiting, in which the lone hunter wielded a knife-tipped stick called rogatina. As even the most sophisticated students of the Spanish ritual must admit, however, the baiting of the bull is less a hunt in a remote corner of the forest than a public execution. This involves several teams of brilliantly dressed and rather portly henchmen, two of them mounted on horseback, with a combined weight of well over a ton.
Even that shameless discrepancy in weight categories one could stomach, perhaps, had it not been for the plating on the horses, reminiscent of the Kevlar armor of riot police. In vain does the hapless bull gore the horse, while the mounted picador sticks his pike into him with total impunity — at which point in the game even an onlooker blessed with a most sanguine disposition cannot but exclaim that the whole premise of the spectacle is bloody unfair.
And so, as the second of those dapper hidalgos went flying through the air — to be followed in no time at all by the matador’s ear, together with its once proud, now irredeemably cuckolded owner — in the ensuing deathly hush only my wife’s scream, in Russian, rang out over the hemorrhaging sand of the arena: ‘Serves you right, you bastards!’
Our Spanish-speaking Russian host, who comes to Pamplona every year, assured us that this sort of thing had not happened in living memory. Andador single-hornedly subverted the whole panoply of elaborate arrangements for his humiliation, complete with horses wearing Kevlar shields, fat louts armed with spears, and toffs brandishing swords. Once the martyr to conformity had been slaughtered and, like five others before him that evening, dragged away on a length of rope, our host took us to a celebratory dinner. I could not remember ever drinking to anyone’s memory with more righteous abandon.
Nor could I remember ever feeling joy at discarding a masquerade costume. Yet the binning of that scarf was a joy, comparable in some ways to what I felt on take-off when the Austrian airlines plane bearing me out of Moscow nearly 40 years ago was finally airborne.