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Books: Into the Arena by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

A British writer studies the history and ethics of bullfighting

Posted: August 24, 2011

By Stephan Delbos - Staff Writer | Comments (2) | Post comment

Books: Into the Arena by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Walter Novak

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Bullfighting is the world's most divisive sport.

Depending on whom you ask, bullfighting is either "the last serious thing left in the world today," as Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca wrote, or it is, as PETA claims, "a tradition of tragedy." The Parliament of Catalonia voted in 2010 to end the sport beginning January 2012, a signal that perhaps minds are changing even in the traditional home of the bullfight, although many southern Spaniards say this is simply a separatist ploy by Catalonians.

If bullfighting is the most divisive sport, it is also among the most alluring, especially for writers, who have flocked to Spain at least since the publication of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises in 1926, which details - in glorified terms - bullfights, the running of the bulls in Spain and the culture that surrounds both activities.

British writer Alexander Fiske-Harrison became fascinated by the bullfight on a visit to Seville with his family in 2000 and returned regularly. In 2007, he published an article in the magazine Prospect inconclusively investigating the morals of the bullfight. The response was immediate and widespread: Fiske-Harrison soon found himself with a book contract, a ticket to Spain and a plan to stay for one year, immersing himself in the tradition and its key players. The result is Into the Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight, a fast-paced, choppy account of his investigation and an evocative depiction of the controversial, dangerous world of corrida de toros.

Into the Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight
By Alexander Fiske-Harrison
Profile Books
284 pages

From the very beginning, Fiske-Harrison makes it clear this will not be simply another book about the act of bullfighting, but rather a philosophical inquiry into the subject, trying to decipher its ethics or lack thereof. Fiske-Harrison sets out to decide whether it is wrong to kill these powerful animals for sport.

The author does come to a conclusion regarding the ethics of bullfighting, but thankfully, Into the Arena is not a philosophical tract or a screed in support of animal rights. Instead, it narrates the events of Fiske-Harrison's year in Spain, meeting the aficionados, breeders and matadors who make up the world of bullfighting, a world he enters almost despite himself. There is the handsome young matador Cayetano Rivera Ordónez, the garrulous Juan José Padilla and the humble Adolfo Suárez Illana, all of whom the author befriends, affording him nearly unprecedented access to the inner world of bullfighting and breeding. It is in these portions - praying with the matadors before the fight and partying with them afterward - that Into the Arena is truly remarkable.

The grit and sweat of these characters is conveyed in tightly wrought prose that acknowledges its debt to Hemingway, but sometimes nestles too close to Papa's pen.

One of the most accomplished passages in the book describes a trip Fiske-Harrison makes to Pamplona, where he runs with the bulls before witnessing the garish, tourist-oriented spectacle that is, as he writes, the "only bullfight I will ever see in Pamplona," one that lacks the art of the best bullfights he has witnessed.

Watching the killing of a bull he ran with earlier in the day, Fiske-Harrison writes, "I had run next to this great animal ... felt some form of connection to the powers that propelled him. Now I watched them all turned inwards in an attempt to defy the tiny, rigid ribbon of steel within his chest, and having been blinded by no beauty, tricked by no displays of courage or prowess by the matadors, I just saw an animal trying to stay on its feet against the insuperable reality of death. I left the plaza de toros with tears in my eyes after that. And there was nothing good in all that place."  

This emotive, finely crafted paragraph is marred by the final sentence, which is cut-rate Hemingway. You can almost hear the author saying "eureka!" as he turned the phrase.

Elsewhere in the book, Fiske-Harrison relies on his journal to convey the details of bullfights and their aftermath. These sections, some of which are several pages long, are set apart by different font, and are usually introduced with a phrase like "Here is my diary write up at the time."

Since virtually all of the book must have been compiled from journal entries and notes, one wonders why Fiske-Harrison didn't simply work these passages into steely prose, and suspects this is a device to put the reader in the author's shoes, so to speak. But such breaks in narrative actually foster more critical distance than Fiske-Harrison's prose, which is seamless elsewhere, although at times he goes over the edge in his descriptions of the spiritual aspects of bullfighting, which he calls "a pillar of honesty" within our "media-driven" society.

But these qualms do little to detract from the powerful narrative of Into the Arena, whereby Fiske-Harrison evolves from a dilettante not sure how deeply he wants to be involved in bullfighting to a seasoned aficionado and, finally, an amateur matador. As the narrative moves forward, the writer's opinions about bullfighting and the people involved in it become more subtle and more decisive, inching him toward his ethical conclusion on the sport even as he become more deeply entrenched in bullfighting's complexities and mysteries.

Since the publication of the book, Fiske-Harrison has been touted as a new expert on bullfighting, a reputation the writer has duly earned with blood, sweat and study, and a fair amount of Spanish sherry. In this book, we see the development of that expertise.

Several decades ago, Into the Arena would have been a stunning exposé. As it stands, it is a thoughtful, well-researched and deeply felt investigation of a cultural anomaly as it teeters on the verge of commodity and taboo. By the end, Fiske-Harrison's moral conclusions are an afterthought; what is worth saving here are the vivid evocations of men who risk their lives in a beautiful, vulgar battle with the bulls.

Stephan Delbos can be reached at

Tags: czech literature, prague literature, into the arena book, Federico Garcia Lorca, Alexander Fiske-Harrison, bullfighting into the arena.

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