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.