Out of Spain: Matadors on horns of a dilemma

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The Independent Online
MADRID - It's that time of year again and los toros are back. Spaniards refer to bullfighting as 'the bulls' for a simple reason. True aficionados turn out to observe the fighting qualities of the bulls, not the bullfighters. The fiesta nacional appears as popular as ever but true aficionados are few and Spain's los beautiful (jet set) fill the best seats to see and be seen.

The anti-bullfighting lobby need read no further. Efforts by Spain's Green Party and the country's Association for the Defence of Animal Rights (ADDA) to have bullfighting banned will bear no fruit this year at least. Despite an ADDA petition of 1,393,784 signatures - a remarkable 800,000 of them from Britain - the show will go on.

The 1994 season, which began last weekend, will, aficionados say, be marked by two controversial phenomena: close shaves and saturation television coverage. By close shaves, I'm not talking about the matadors. It's the bulls' horns that will be shaved to diminish their defences and allow greater glory at less risk to their two-legged tormentors.

'El afeitado (horn-shaving) has been an unprecedented scandal this year,' said the then Interior Minister, Jose Luis Corcuera, at the end of last season. Unprecedented, perhaps, but hardly new. Permit me to cite the words of another ageing and near burnt-out scribe written 34 years ago.

'To protect the leading matadors, the bulls' horns had been cut off at the points and then shaved and filed down so that they looked like real horns. But they were as tender at the points as a fingernail that has been cut to the quick and if the bull could be made to bang them against the planks of the barrera, they would hurt so that he would be careful about hitting anything else. . .

' With the length of the horn shortened, the bull lost his sense of distance, too, and the matador was in much less danger.' Thus wrote Ernest Hemingway in 1960 in The Dangerous Summer, hardly his best book but certainly his last. 'A bull whose horns have been altered is at least 10 times as safe to work and kill as a bull with its horns intact,' the great man calculated.

Bullfighting critics' descriptions of individual bulls are increasingly headed with the euphemism 'sospechoso de pitones' (suspicion over the horns). Drugging the animal, or weakening it by dropping sandbags on to its back - practices also mentioned by Hemingway - are open secrets in the murky, mafioso world of 'los toros'.

'There was nothing in the arena to fight. The bulls were mostly moribund,' wrote one of Spain's better critics, Joaquin Vidal of El Pais, after one fight last season. 'Can anyone imagine the art of bullfighting a corpse?'

The problem is that the bulls and their breeders are no longer the stars. The men in the 'suits of lights', thanks to huge purses and television, are now on a par with pop singers and it is they who call the shots. Most are still brave men but the idea of dying is losing its appeal.

Television has changed the whole bull game and has the true aficionados worried. For the first time, top matadors - currently Enrique Ponce, Joselito and Cesar Rincon - will be cutting their own deals with television channels this year. Without television, aficionados say, young men such as Ponce would never have made it to the top, as he did, within a mere two years.

If he lives long enough, television will soon make a millionaire out of a young, tousle-haired blond torero who fights under a famous name, El Cordobes. Still involved in a legal dispute over professional rights to the name of the man he claims is his father, the 'new' El Cordobes pulls in large crowds because of his unorthodox passes and daring 'frog jump' across the bull's horns. The original El Cordobes was Spain's biggest crowd-puller of the 1960s.

Last season, nearly 200 corridas were broadcast here, plus more from South America during Spain's the closed, winter season. With around 55 million people attending Spanish bullfights in an average year, a war is on among the various state and private channels to give them what they want, cheaper, with slow-motion replays, their living room sofa rather than cold stone beneath their backsides, sitting ducks for the advertising agencies.

Will we soon see spectators waving designer scarves instead of white handkerchiefs? If everyone stays at home, will the fiesta nacional eventually be played out in empty bullrings, the barreras plastered with advertisements for whisky or leading butchers' chains, the cameras zooming in on the bullfighters' slippers and their three white stripes?