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)