In the corridas of power

More than half a century after Hemingway, Laura Thompson revisits the literary bullring and asks: Where's the beef?; Matadors: a journey into the heart of modern bullfighting by Eamonn O'Neill Mainstream, pounds 15.99, 224pp
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Like boxing and Venice, bullfighting is a subject that lures a writer with its siren promise; but it is a promise that can deceive. Subjects like these, so majestically wrapped in their atmospheric cloak, can leave the writer floundering in its folds. "I found the greatest difficulty", wrote Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon, "aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced."

Hemingway cut through the folds of atmosphere and brought his subject before us, sharp as the shadow of the matador in a sunbaked Seville redondel. However, 66 years later, the cult of Hemingway has wrapped its own obfuscatory cloak around bullfighting.

In writing Matadors, Eamonn O'Neill has a double layer of mystification to contend with. He is entering the ring with a subject that flourishes not one, but two capotes de brega, or fighting capes. As any young bull would be in that situation, O'Neill is up against it.

How does he cope? By ensuring that his book is nothing like Death in the Afternoon; not, of course, that he ignores that definitive account. Indeed, he gives one chapter of Matador to an encounter with the president of the Hemingway Association, Allen Josephs, who offers the most interesting thoughts in the book.

At one point, Josephs says that "The corrida itself is not a competition between the man and the animal," a statement that deserves, but does not get, close examination. If bullfighting is not that, then what is it? Josephs also says, of Hemingway, that "he had to get to the point where he understood bullfighting well enough, and that takes years".

This is a dangerous thought for O'Neill to quote in his book. Because the reader does not feel that he understands bullfighting; or, indeed, that he even wants to give the impression of understanding it. He is no descendant of Hemingway. His book is in a newer tradition: that of the journalistic article, stretched out to about 80,000 words beyond its natural length because a successful magazine writer has had an idea that a publisher thinks will sell.

Matadors bears all the hallmarks of the book that isn't really a book. Although fascinated by bullfighting, O'Neill seems to have no "felt" relationship with the subject. He is omnipresent in his own narrative, cluttering up the text with phrases such as "I scribbled down his reply in my notebook". Yet the reader senses an authorial absence at the heart of the book.

The complexities of its subject are eluded. Thus "I felt pleased for the boy [a novillero who has just made his first kill] but, in a way, sorry for the bull. I consoled myself with the thought that it had been a brave enough bull and that, in some ways, made me feel better."

As the subtitle says, this is a "modern account", so presumably a moral commitment would be rather de trop. Matadors is rootless in every sense. Its structure derives from a "journey" through Spain that ends at the bull run in Pamplona, the best part of the book.

Here, O'Neill conveys just that desperate quest for authenticity which obsesses our lost souls and leads us to erode the very thing we seek. He understands this very well. The Pamplona passage would have made a terrific article.

But a book requires more than a journalist's understanding of his own standpoint. What, beyond that, is Matadors about? Is it about how bullfighting, too, is threatened by the modern world? O'Neill refers, for example, to the Americanisation of Spain, to uncomprehending tourists and to a bullfighter named Jesulin de Ubrique, who has been marketed for "the kids... who were more interested in watching a Quentin Tarantino film".

Interesting though this is, it is insufficient. What the reader wants is for O'Neill to get to the heart of his subject; to ask why, in the "modern" world, Spaniards are still compelled to watch bullfighting. And why is he, the author, compelled? He may think that he tells us, but he doesn't really. His accounts of corridas - of the bull running "like a puppy chasing after a ball", or the bull that "wet itself and looked pathetic" - leave a feeling of revulsion that Death in the Afternoon does not.

Hemingway's honesty was such that it cleansed the reader of disgust. His morality, as someone who enjoyed watching bullfights, might be open to question; his morality as someone who wrote about them, never. With O'Neill, whose reason for writing Matadors remains unclear, the reader is not so sure.