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Hemingway has a lot to answer for. Thanks to his writing about life in Spain, each year several thousand American students descend upon the country, in the hope of repeating Hemingway's experiences. Hemingway's experiences of Spain seventy years ago, that is. Of course, this probably says more about the mentality of American students than about Hemingway himself, but nonetheless, it does confirm the fact that he is certainly one of those rarest of things – a writer who is able to express his enthusiasm and interest in a foreign culture in a way that inspires others to attempt to duplicate his explorations. I've put off reading Hemingway for a long time, suspecting that his up-front and direct writing style wouldn't appeal to me, but in all honesty, I didn't find reading 'Death in the Afternoon' anything like the struggle I expected it to be. The writing reads very much like the rambling narrative of an old relative who has done everything and experienced everything, but seems not to be able to express thoughts on a single subject in a straightforward and easy-to-understand way. If you can handle that, then you'll love Hemingway – reading him is like listening to your mad old uncle relate his life story. He's prone to wander off tangentially, and provide irrelevant and unexpected details pertaining to his stories. THE BOOK 'Death in the Afternoon' is most decidedly not a work of fiction. Far from it, it's a description of the artistry of the bullfight by a true aficionado of the event. My initial thoughts regarding bullfighting were that it was a savage and unnecessary sport, and despite having seen documentaries about it on television, my opinion hadn't been radically altered. I suspect, having read Hemingway's thoughts on the subject, that this reflects the way in which the sport has been depicted on British television, however. Hemingway introduces the subject b
y telling us of his first impressions of bullfighting. He admits that he thought that the fights would be "simple and barbarous and cruel" and that he wouldn't like them, however, he did feel that he wanted to experience them, so that he could write about the sport from an informed stand-point. Hemingway admits that his initial curiosity about bullfighting came from a desire to witness violent death, something that he considered to be a fundamental subject for writers to be able to write about. This account of the art of bullfighting does not come from only a minimal experience of the sport. Hemingway didn't write anything about bullfighting until he had attended fights over a five-year period, across the world, and this book was written after he had even more experience of the events. As Hemingway says himself, the more you experience of something, the less willing you become to actually write about it, as you begin to realise how little about it you truly understand... (perhaps something some of us dooyooers would do well to heed!). THE WRITING During the course of the book, Hemingway writes in breathless, long sentences and paragraphs, reflecting his enthusiasm for the subject. Some pages consist of just a single extended paragraph for example. This can make some of Hemingway's points somewhat difficult to follow, but it does give a positive impression of the atmosphere and passion of the bullfight. Hemingway is also somewhat prone to repeating himself. I lost count of how many times I read that the bullfight could be divided into three stages, along with brief descriptions of what happens in each stage of the fight, for example. Having said that, each time Hemingway described the three stages, he did emphasise subtly different aspects of the fight, making the repetitiveness slightly more bearable. While each chapter deals with a different aspect of bullfighting, from the breeding of the bulls, to
the layout of the ring, Hemingway is somewhat inclined to drift off-topic towards the end of each chapter. This didn't bother me particularly, however, because these final paragraphs of each chapter tended to be the most interesting, as he would address whatever happened to be playing upon his mind, or subjects that couldn't be easily covered elsewhere in the narrative. Several of the chapters end with a hypothetical conversation with an "Old Woman", with whom Hemingway discusses the social lives of the bullfighters. My personal favourite of Hemingway's digressions is when, at the end of a chapter about banderilleros (the bullfighters who work in the second stage of the bullfight, under the direction of the matador, to insert pairs of banderillas (harpoon-like objects) into the withers of the bull), he begins discussing the merits, religion and sexual preferences of various Spanish painters – specifically Goya, El Greco and Velasquez. Nonetheless, Hemingway provides a lot of fascinating insights in the bullfight, and into the strategy and planning behind what goes on in the arena. The picadors, for example, who enter the arena with the bull in the first stage of the bullfight, are equipped with long pikes (picas), and fight from horseback. The picadors are instructed by the matador to insert the picas into the bull's murillo (muscular hump just behind the neck) in such a way as to correct for veering to one side or the other by the bull. Also, for example, Hemingway describes the well known move in bullfighting in which, in the third and final stage of the fight, the matador encourages the bull to charge the muleta (cape) as he holds it spread out to his side. This move, known as the pase de la muerte (pass of death), Hemingway explains, actually presents vastly less danger to the matador than other passes that the matador could attempt, although it unquestionably looks more impressive. It is for these rea
sons that this particular move has become so popular and common in the sport. In addition to revealing interesting facts about the event itself, Hemingway offers invaluable advice about where a first-time visitor should sit in the arena, and which parts of the world (and specifically Spain) are traditionally the best in which to watch bullfights. He also provides some interesting anecdotes about famous matadors, and their various contributions to the sport. In one particularly entertaining chapter, Hemingway offers quotes from various Spanish newspapers to illustrate how at every point in the history of bullfighting, commentators have negatively criticised current fighters, and longed for the long-gone "golden days". At the back of the book, Hemingway provides a comprehensive glossary of terms used in bullfighting, which can be useful while reading the rest of the book. However, one of the biggest problems with 'Death in the Afternoon' is that it's now some seventy years old, so the information in it about "modern" styles of bullfighting are obviously going to be vastly out of date now. While some of the historical inaccuracies have been commented on in footnotes, I suspect that others, which have occurred since Hemingway's death, aren't addressed at all in the book. MY THOUGHTS I've got to be honest, I don't think Hemingway has changed my overall impression that bullfighting is a savage sport, but I do feel that if I were to have the opportunity to watch a bullfight in Spain, I would be more likely to do so now than I would have been before reading the book. Certainly, I feel that I would now have a far better understanding of what was actually going on in the fight, and would find it a far more interesting experience. CONCLUSIONS Hemingway's writing certainly isn't for everyone, and at times, I found it quite tough going. Hemingway is prone to rep
etition and going off at tangents from the main subject of the book, and his sentences and paragraphs can often be clumsily overlong and difficult to follow. Nonetheless, his enthusiasm for the artistry of the sport really does come through, and it is this that makes the book a fascinating read.