Death in the Afternoon
by Ernest Hemingway
Here is Hemingway's love letter to the art of killing bulls, a unique outgrowth of the cultural religion of Spain. Written when its author was in his early thirties, it paints a vivid, colorful prose picture of an art that was either beginning to die when he witnessed it, or had already essentially died, or always is and has been dying but never quite dead. It is an exploration of what is essentially true at the heart of a decadent institution: the acting-out of the timeless tragedy of death that seems, at times, to have degenerated without chance of recall into a gaudy spectacle of self-destructive machismo, or sometimes very thinly veiled cowardice.
Hemingway presents the chief parts of the bullfight one at a time, in the manner of a lecturer delivering a master class on the subject. With a keenly critical eye he evaluates the strengths and weakness of the matadors of his time, and of the people who serve them (such as picadors and banderilleros). To keep it from becoming boring, however, he places it all against a richly colored backdrop. Spain, as it was on the eve of its Civil War, comes alive to all the senses.
Hemingway also offers strange and wonderful insights into the Spanish character, as well as the human, and his own—simply by making such a compelling case for seeing the beauty in a ritual that too many have thoughtlessly condemned as wanton, cruel and wasteful of life. He argues persuasively that the corrida's shift of priorities, from when the killing of the bull was all-important to the latter-day matador's exhibition of calmness and poise while allowing the horns to pass suicidally close to his body, is both a blessing and a curse but mostly the latter. Under Hemingway's influence, one may even come to suspect that some of the reforms meant to lessen the supposed cruelty of the fights actually, in effect, increased the suffering experienced by the animal and the danger faced by the men.
The author does not confine his discussion to the ring. He sketches the lifestyle of bullfighters outside the ring, the pressures and health-hazards (both physical and mental) that they face, and the wider experience of living and traveling in Spain. He observes the behavior of the spectators, the character of the all-too-mortal men engaged in this blood sport, the challenges of the climate, and even the problems inherent in writing about Spain. At a couple of points he goes entirely off-topic and volunteers a bitingly memorable, brief essay on some other subject, such as using a beloved old horse as bear-bait, seeing death in a variety of forms in World War I (what he calls a "history of the dead"), and even some of his experiences from living in Paris.
It is interesting to consider whether the cynicism of Hemingway's worldview can be separated from these experiences, or from his appreciation of the bullfight. It is fascinating to have such a vital character speaking directly to you, even if you (like me) cannot help but disobey his command to "read no further until after you have seen the bullfight." Hemingway must have envisioned quite a small audience for this book if he really expected that injunction to be obeyed. But one aspect of his vitality is the swiftness of his judgment of other men's manliness. The life he himself lived would be a hard yardstick to measure up to. Yet in this book we see—or, as in my case, hear it as narrated on CD by the verbally gifted Boyd Gaines—this standard of judgment brought to bear on such men that Hemingway seems to come away in awe of them. And if that isn't a reason to take an interest in the bullfight, I don't know what is.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 14+
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