When Rafael woke up at three that morning he was dripping with sweat. It took him a moment to realise that he was back in his childhood room. He had been dreaming about plunging the banderilla into the back of the bull’s neck. The accusation in the bull’s eyes as it lowered its head for the final blow haunted him.
They had all gone to the bar the previous night to celebrate his return. Posters were plastered on the walls outside and inside. They proclaimed that he was the grandson of el famoso, Jose Fernando Martinez, and the nephew of Luis Fernando Martinez.
It was his fate to be related to two of the most famous matadors Spain had ever seen. The nation had mourned after his grandfather had been gored to death in the bullring and a statue had been erected in Madrid at the entrance to the arena. His uncle had followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and his cousin, Jose Fernando, another great bullfighter in the making, had been carrying on the family tradition until he was killed in the car accident. He was from a family of bullfighters and he had been raised on its glory. Not for the first time, the burden of tradition weighed heavily.
He had never bought into the blood and gore, the displays of machismo. He could appreciate the beauty of the intricate dance and the skill of the matador. But was it necessary to kill the bull in such a cruel way, taunting the animal until it charged desperately to its end? The roar of the crowd reminded him of spectators at a gladiator show except here defenceless animals were slaughtered. The bullring even resembled a Roman amphitheatre.
Of course he had done the training, gone to bullfighting school for years, if only to keep the peace at home. In truth, he was happiest sitting with a book in the shade of the olive trees, breathing in the aroma released by the rows of lavender bushes, or sitting under the bougainvillea in the courtyard, the fountain creating cool sounds while he painted.
“Your mother does not want you to be a man! What is all this drawing and painting you do?”
It had been with great relief that he accepted the offer of a place at the art school in Barcelona. His father had thought it was a waste of time, and there had been a terrible fight with his mother. Getting the scholarship had made it easier to leave. Before he had left, his mother had taken him aside.
“Try to understand your father, Rafael. It has been hard for him to lose his father, then Luis and now, Jose too.”
“But I cannot be all those people for him. And why do you let him speak to you like that? Sometimes it is he who reminds me of a bull, raging around the ring!”
“Tranquilo, mi hijo. Your father has worked hard to give us a good life. I will be fine, don’t worry.”
But he had worried about leaving his mother. What was it that made his father so angry all the time? Perhaps it was tradition that weighed him down too. Everyone close to him had died and the Martinez name would no longer be heard around the arena. There had been many passionate debates around the dinner table till late into the night when everyone had had far too much red wine.
“It is not about the bull, not about the killing,” his father maintained. “It is art. Los toros needs grace and style…and bravery.”
“Dios mio! In other parts of Spain the bull fight has been banned!”
“We should never have sent you to Barcelona to study. Those Catalans do not even want to be part of Spain! Now that Europe is one you will forget what it is that makes you Spanish.”
“This display is for tourists who think they are seeing the real Spain.”
“Do not speak to me of drunken tourists who run with bulls in Pamplona. They complain when someone gets hurt. Stupid Americans, think they know it all from an old book. For hundreds of years, Spain has had bullfights. You young people want to change everything.”
“Spain has art and books, music and beautiful buildings, too. What of Picasso, Gaudi, Dali?”
He didn’t understand it. Surely Spain had moved away from all this? After the bloody civil war many people had had little appetite for the cruelty of bullfighting, even less so after Franco’s death. Bullfighting did not make sense in this century. He and Jose had been close. His mother had been as devastated by his death as if he were her own son. The flamboyant decorations glinting in the moonlight where the suit hung on the front of the cupboard, seemed to mock him. It had been made for Jose. It symbolised everything that he was not.
“Do it this one time, for Jose,” his mother had appealed. He had come home to pay tribute to Jose but he wasn’t sure that he would be able to go through with it. He’d never be able to return home again if he shamed his father in front of all those people.
Of course he was proud to be Spanish. But enough with the fighting! He remembered seeing Picasso’s Guernica for the first time. He had gone back to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid many times to sit in front of the painting, to try to understand its message. To him, the bull in the haunting black and white painting was a symbol of hope, showing the continuity of the Spanish nation after the civil war. The bull seemed to be protecting the mother. That’s why he was doing this, to protect his mother from his father’s anger for the son she had raised.
This was a Creative Writing/Fiction exercise that we worked on over a few sessions with novelist, Consuelo Roland, who presented us with this picture of a bullfighter and cautioned us not to search for it on the internet before writing. I since discovered that it was not all it was made out to be. Read more here