Death in the Afternoon


On Sports

On the fifteenth of June 2008, only a few minutes after stepping into the sand of Madrid’s bullring, the bullfighter José Tomás was covered in blood. Just ten days before, he had had his most glorious fight ever, a fight that turned even the usually skeptical aficionados ecstatic. That second afternoon the stakes were high, but the bullfight proved to be crude and epic. Tomás was gored three times. After each goring, he stubbornly stood up, planted himself on the ground, and fought on, never stepping back from the bull. His torso bent achingly slowly, inches from the animal, to subtly guide the charge. His calm was astounding. It didn’t matter that this time the bulls weren’t following his wrist but rather searching for his body—he  wanted to deliver the same smooth performance as he had ten days before.

Tomás had to undergo three operations as soon as he left the ring. One of the wounds ran twenty inches into his right thigh and tore his muscle. Some viewers accused him of being suicidal; others saw the consummate performance of Spain’s best bullfighter, one who was ready to fight steadily till the end. When a journalist asked the old former matador Esplá, “What is courage?” he answered, “It’s the spot where José Tomás stands.”

Born in a small town outside Madrid in 1975, Tomás has always been an unusual figure in the bullfighting world. His grandfather Celestino, a cab driver, often took him to the fights. He was still a child when he held the red cape, the muleta, for the first time, in front of a cow at the house of a distant relative who was a bull breeder. After his bullfighting debut in 1995 in Las Ventas, Tomás made it clear that his attitude was not like that of other bullfighters. He stood close to the bulls but far from the media. He refused to have anything to do with the power brokers of the business, the owners of bullrings and bull breeders. He banned TV stations from the rings during his fights; he refused to give interviews. Unlike the stereotypical playboy torero, Tomás kept his private life discreet and quiet. He didn’t take a siesta before fights and never prayed in the bullring’s chapel, as every other matador or banderillero does. His refusal to dedicate the bulls to a member of the royal family when they attended his fights—a customary ritual—made many suspect him of being antimonarchical. But his asceticism and understatement ironically attracted more fans, bringing a new generation of aficionados to the bullrings—young, modern Spaniards who saw Tomás as the embodiment of what bullfighting should be. He became an inspirational figure for younger bullfighters, who tried to emulate not only his daring style but also his refusal to leave from the ring no matter how dire his wounds. (José Padilla, the bullfighter who lost an eye and decided not to quit is probably the most extreme example.)

But the truth is that Tomás did once quit. In 2002, at the height of his career, he suddenly retired. He gave no reason; fans could discern no motive. Some speculated that he was merely exhausted, and many of his supporters hoped that he would shortly return to the ring. As the months passed, however, it became clear that he would not. The mystery that had always surrounded Tomás deepened; his legend grew. He moved to an Andalusian coastal town and took up soccer in a local amateur team.

Tomás’s return, five years later, in Barcelona, was just as unexpected. His comeback bullfight was announced only a month in advance and tickets were sold out in one day. Tomás’s choice of venue was deliberate. The city’s bullring had been the site of many of his most memorable performances. But bullfighting had also been hotly contested in Barcelona for decades. By staging his comeback performance there, Tomás was implicitly entering another fight—one about politics, animal rights, and nationalism—as calmly as he had so often entered the bullring. That sunny afternoon, hundreds of protesters surrounded Barcelona’s Monumental ring, screaming at the eighteen thousand ticket holders. Hemingway dubbed these animal-rights supporters “animalarians” more than six decades ago. He also pointed out that even the aficionados tend to be apologetic about the so-called decadent art: “I suppose, from a modern point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfighting is indefensible; there is certainly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death.”

Still, the afternoon of Tomás’s comeback, old men broke into tears watching his well-rounded veronicas (the pink cape, the capote, flying slowly in the silent air) his breathtaking manoletinas (when the red muleta tightly wrapped his body), and the wonderfully blasé passes he performed with his left hand, the pitch perfect naturales. Tomás seemed to transcend fear, commandeering the ground directly in front of the bull,  his toreo both gentle and stubborn. His artful fight in Barcelona that afternoon (and several more in the next four years), however, proved insufficient: bullfights have been effectively banned from Catalonia since September 2011, when Tomás performed there for the last time.

Like every torero, Tomás is sympathetic to the plight of the bulls. In 2008, he even won a reprieve for the bull Idílic, an exceptionally rare event that recognizes the excellence of the animal, the worthiness of the foe. But a bull’s death is hardly the only possible outcome in bullfighting, and Tomás’s June 2008 fight was not his last major injury. In 2009 in Aguascalientes, Mexico, he was so badly hurt that many thought he would never walk properly again. Nevertheless, after more than a year, he was fighting again, leading to renewed concern from his critics that he was suicidal.

Juan Belmonte, the first matador to fight close to bulls in the 1910s, is credited with creating a whole new approach to bullfighting. Of his technique, he said,

I went to the ring like a mathematician going to the blackboard to prove a theorem. At that time the art of bullfighting was governed by the picturesque axiom of “Lagartijo” which said, “You stand there, and either you move or the bull moves you.” I was there to demonstrate that this was not self-evident as they thought. My theory was, “You stand there, and the bull does not move you … if you know how to fight.”

Like Tomás, Belmonte was frequently accused of being suicidal. But then the entire idea of bullfighting has a suicidal element: the death of the bullfighter is always a possibility, an inescapable part of the ritual, of the tragedy. The writer Ramón de Valle Inclán used to tease his friend Belmonte by saying that the only thing he never accomplished was his own death in the bullring. “I’ll see what I can do,” the matador always answered. At seventy, nearly four decades after giving up bullfights, he shot himself.

This spring, Tomás will fight again; and the dark shadow surrounding him will continue to grow.

Andrea Aguilar is a freelance journalist based in New York. She has been a contributing writer to El País since 2003.