Books: Never say `Ole'! yroud to

Dea Birkett on a cool customer at the corrida

On Bullfighting

by A L Kennedy

Yellow Jersey Press, pounds 10, 181pp

YOU NEED a lot of bravado to be a slight Scottish woman and take on bullfighting. It's a subject that our most weighty male writers have tackled, some might say patented. But an imaginative editor asked A L Kennedy, a complete novice as far as bullfighting is concerned, to write a brief book about it. Although she confesses she had never given the corrida a moment's thought before, she was an inspired choice. She quickly lets us know that this is to be no romanticised account. Hemingway is not her hero. Her book will not be so much about the bull, but about the battles between Life, Death and Chance that the corrida encompasses. Isn't this what bullfighting is all about? And thankfully - for literary purposes at least - at the time of her commission Kennedy was afflicted by a very serious case of writer's block and contemplating suicide. So Death was very much upon her mind.

Her account opens splendidly. Just as Melville did for his whale in Moby Dick, so Kennedy places her mythical best in millennia of history. There is the half-man, half-bull Minotaur, the bull god Anu in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the ancient Egyptian cow-headed goddess Hathor. But where Melville quickly melts from myth into fiction, Kennedy's account is painstakingly factual. There's a lot of guidebook detail to wade through before we get anywhere near a good pair of horns.

Kennedy begins her acquaintance with the toro through watching a succession of videos. This sense of detachment and distance does not dissolve as she moves to the Plaza de Toros Monumental in Madrid. I never felt that Kennedy was once moved by the corrida. As if terrified of collapsing into sentimentality, she clings to her coolness in the ring. She does not like the kill. `"This is much nearer butchery and farce than art," she judges.

There are some alluring facts, presented so dryly that they come across as the very best of jokes. "Contrary to popular belief," Kennedy informs, "matadors do not customarily feast on the testicles of their victims. Given that a well-ranked matador might kill enough bulls in a week to produce around fifty of these sizeable delicacies, the sheer volume of supply alone might well be off-putting." But I longed for her icy analysis to break down, to find that she had trespassed into that awkward ground for writers where you both belong and don't belong. There is a very thin line between sympathy and detachment, and the best travel writers teeter along it. Kennedy shrugs off this tightrope to plant her feet outside.

She doesn't once talk to a single matador, apoderado (manager), picador, ganadero (bull breeder) or even aficionado. She simply sits in the audience at a handful of corridas. Even when a novice is gored before her, she is so untouched that her only response is to refocus her telephoto lens. "Ole!" is a phrase that does not pass her lips. is informative, minutely observed and beautifully written; but in a forum of such fierce passions, it seems surprisingly cold.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition