Blood and Sand, by Vicente Blasco Ibanez

Here is a classic from the past, of Spain’s literary past. A tale of bullfighting that takes us behind the scenes with its portrait of an egocentric matador, and then out into the arena, where the matador confronts the horns of massive and agile bulls. It will become a tale of courage and cruelty in a violent world.

But this 1908 novel does not begin that way. Indeed, it is carefully constructed. In the first chapter we encounter the successful bullfighter, Juan Gallardo, as he prepares psychologically for an afternoon corrida, and slowly dons the traditional suit of lights. Then we follow him through the streets, past adoring fans, and into the sunlit arena where he confronts two bulls and draws loud cheers. Which establishes both his character and his presence.

But where did this successful torero come from? The novel backtracks to his humble origins, as Gallardo struggles with poverty and dreams of escape by becoming a famous matador. He also grounds himself by marrying his first love, the beautiful Carmen. And in the next chapter, as he becomes established, he develops a personal relationship with both El Nacional, a member of his entourage, in whom he confides his innermost thoughts, and Dona Sol, the beautiful and enticing niece of an upper class don who raises bulls. But while he falls for her, she is aloof and mysterious; and she will later prove to be as fickle as his bullfight fans.

Gallardo’s success in the ring leads, perhaps inevitably, to his enjoying the wealth, prestige, and glamour of the upper classes. For they now treat him as an equal. After all, he is a very personable young man. And we have the first signs of both the egotism required of a bullfighter and of how newly found fame can go to a matador’s head.

During one off-season, Gallardo is visited at his ranch by another famous figure, the bandit Plumitas. Who tells him they are very similar, both having their origins in poverty and both having now attracted thousands of followers. But the bandit also reminds him that they have earned public fame because both are killers. Except Gallardo kills bulls and Plumitas kills men. Which plants the seed of the violence that underlies both their lives. And reminds us that both do share a potentially violent fate.

And then the drama heightens as Gallardo’s mother and wife both rebel against his carrying on with other women, especially with Dona Sol. Whereupon—is this retribution?—the matador is tossed by a bull at a corrida and is severely wounded. And yet…the author offers little detail of the matador’s recovery. What he does, instead, is bring Gallardo back into the public eye, as he joins the Holy Week celebrations of his native Sevilla.

This is the most remarkable commemoration of Christ’s death in the Western world, and Blasco Ibanez offers a rich and satisfying portrait of its two main processions. These alternate processions carry two great figures through the streets on Holy Thursday, that of Jesus of the Gran Poder, the Great Power, the fraternity of the upper classes that Gallardo now identifies with, and that of the Macarena, the Virgin of Hope, who belongs to the poor people among whom Gallardo was raised.

For his return, Gallardo has rejoined the procession of the lower class followers of the Macarena, instead of continuing as a Nazarene for the Gran Poder. And so, just as this matador faces death every time he enters the bullring, he joins here in commemorating the death of Christ, a death that carries meaning for all levels of Spanish society.

The doctor who treated Gallardo’s wounds, incidentally, offers a theory about the history of bullfighting that surely reflects that of Blasco Ibanez. That once the Americas had been conquered and that wars in Europe had ended, the true art of bullfighting developed. For the soldier or colonist of that past found that becoming a torero was his new path to fame and glory. And bullfighting truly flourished, he says, because it replaced the cruelty of the auto-da-fe, the burning of heretics. He writes: “The savagery of the crowds reared on the spectacle of violent death and torture needed a new escape valve.” This analysis, however, will color the novel’s conclusion, and one questions how appropriate such a message is for a literary work

Indeed, the novel then changes. For Gallardo fails to show courage on returning to the bullring. His body refuses to go over the horns for the kill. And as his courage fades, our interest in him also begins to flag. In fact, one wonders where this story is headed, especially when the matador arranges a meeting with Dona Sol. For he become further disillusioned when she says he is now only a “friend.” Which pushes Gallardo further off his self-generated pedestal, and one anticipates the author heading off in a new direction.

And, indeed, this is what happens. As the author’s true feeling about bullfighting take over, he now distances himself from the matador, and emphasizes the rabid spectators and their hypocritical demand for blood. For they demand he risk death for them, and then curse him when he refuses. It is a response that comes less through Gallardo himself, and more through his companions, or by means of a simple description of events at a distance.

But in highlighting his true feeling about bullfighting, Blasco Ibanez sacrifices the humanity of this novel to its message. Forcing him to blend the fate of his hero to that message. With the result that Gallardo’s fate is not moving. Indeed, one is separated from a hero one had once identified with.

And so—despite the thoroughness with which this novel recreates the world of bullfighting, from one man’s humble origins to the egotism cultivated by success, from the rituals behind the scene to those of the sunlit arena, and even the rumors and the gossip that follow bullfighters everywhere—despite the fullness with which this life is portrayed, the author negates much of his message by negating the power of Gallardo’s fate.

I called this novel a classic. Perhaps I spoke too soon. For despite the brilliance with which it has portrayed Gallardo’s life, the author has sacrificed its power to make his point. Indeed, the Introduction by Isaac Goldberg that accompanies this novel says “the thesis element predominates” in Blasco Ibanez’ work. With the author also called a “novelist of ideas-in-action.” And so what began here as a character-based literary work ends with a regrettable focus on a social message. (March, 2019)

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Drums, by James Boyd

As one begins this 1925 novel, one immediately becomes immersed in the world of the 1770s, just before the American Revolution. And one also becomes exposed to that world of more traditional literature that reigned until the 1920s. It was usually a world of rich description and little forward movement. Far different from what is soon to evolve, in which human beings drive the action, in which the story must move on.

Here, the initial effort is to create the world of rural North Carolina in the months before the Revolution. What concerns the people of that era? What are their lives like? What are their homes like, their fields, their clothes, their food? So much detail has been researched by this author to enable him to recreate that world of 150 years earlier. So much that it is clear the author wants his readers to experience that world—before he wants them to identify with his main character, the teenager Johnny Fraser, an insecure boy who respects his father and mother and is unaware as yet of the challengers of the adult world beyond the limits of the family farm.

But soon the novel will introduce both him and the reader to that adult world, beginning with rural North Carolina where the British administer that colony but where some of the local people are unhappy with the new taxes and their own lack of political control. And where tension rises as word reaches them about a rebellion in the North.

Much of the novel focuses on the youthful Johnny. His parents send him away from their farm to a local seaport, Edenton, where a preacher, Dr, Clapton, educates him in Latin and prepares him to be a true gentleman, not a farmer like themselves. There, Johnny meets more worldly people, and another kind of education begins. He meets and is impressed by Captain Tennant, the British officer who represents the King and administers the colony, although he is confused by Tennant’s sassy daughter Eve. He meets the worldly and friendly Captain Flood, who transports him to and from his family farm. He meets the distinguished Sir Nathaniel, who raises horses and organizes cockfights, and is impressed by him, as well as by the wealthy and pretentious Wylie Jones. He also meets the Merrillees, and is fascinated by, but confused by, their beautiful daughter Sally.

The character of Johnny ends up being elusive, much as was the political thinking of that era in North Carolina. Throughout the novel, in fact, Johnny is analyzing the faults of others, as well as doubting himself and his own faults. He also sees people’s good qualities, and he strives to adapt many of those for himself. But he is confused by the various attitudes he observes among his fellow North Carolinians when word first arrives of the unrest and then the military action in the North. For they reveal mixed feelings about whether one should be loyal to the King, or whether one should strive to be free of England.

Johnny has even greater difficulty, however, is in reacting on a more personal level to the attitudes shown by young women, particularly Eve Tennant and Sally Merrillee. Note, however, that there is no discussion here of the status or the freedom of their black slaves. Indeed, the care given here is that the dialects of the Negroes be as accurate as possible—along with the spoken language found in the rural South or in the formal clubs of London. Any discussion of the rights of slaves does not arise, not until nearly a century later, and then only in the North.

Meanwhile, when news of dissension does spread southward, Johnny’s family sends him to England, both to enable him to avoid making a choice in the potential conflict, as well as to preserve some family investments abroad. And that London world is richly drawn as well, from its social scene to its political scene, as well as from its pubs to its clubs. Once again one marvels at the brilliance with which that far different world is captured. For Boyd again captures the details, in order to bring that distant European reality to life—a sedate and peaceful life for Johnny, which is soon disrupted by battle scenes. These are aboard an American warship under the captaincy of John Paul Jones. For Johnny has at last chosen sides in the American rebellion. And, following a brief interval in Brest, France, Johnny rejoins Jones and his crew on a newly refurbished Bonhomme Richard, which encounters a British warship and overwhelms it in a famous battle.

Whereupon, a wounded Johnny returns to North Carolina to heal, and to witness the arrival of the Revolution in the houses and taverns back home. And we realize that this novel is not so much a portrait of Johnny Fraser as it is a portrait of the Revolution seen through the eyes of Johnny Fraser. He has been less the hero of our novel than the vehicle with which we watch a cross section of society experience this dramatic period in American history. The novel itself is not dramatic, even as the events themselves range from mundane on one level to truly dramatic on another. In fact, we do not even identify with Johnny, even as we see that world through his eyes. And, at the end, when we do see in him a final maturity, there is also an open-ended conclusion about how his life will continue, especially a love life that has until now been unfulfilled.

This novel has been called “the best novel of the American Revolution ever written.” And I would not argue. Well, I loved the smaller scale April Morning by Hoard Fast, but not least because it was about the Battle of Concord and Lexington, near where I grew up. And, in fact, to support Drums’ pedigree is a later decision by Scribner’s to bring out a special edition with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.

The title, Drums, refers to the drums of war. Before he leaves for England, a youthful Johnny encounters an old Indian who explains that the drumming he hears is that of nearby Indians who have heard reports of rebellion in the colony, and their reaction to the rumors is to send out a message, as they have long done when their own tribes prepare for battle. Boyd also recalls this incident in the last lines of the novel, when Johnny, hailing a distant soldier, “raised his stiff arm in the Indians salutation….[and] the distant figure lifted a long black rifle against the sky.” It is a final touch of the artistry that went into this novel. (March, 2019)