I first read Tom Lea’s “The Brave Bulls” in the early 1960s. I had just returned from Spain, where I had spent several years, recording a far less than impressive record as a novillero, which had ended when a novillo stuck a horn in that what the newspapers called, the next day, “las partes honorables”.
In any case, I was pretty full of myself. Everything that I knew about bullfighting had been learned the hard way: on the sand. I knew nothing of the deep, philosophical significance of bullfighting. For me, it was the excitement, the music, the applause, and of course, the willing groupies. I had read only a couple of books about La Fiesta. Who needed books? I was an expert! After all, my teachers had been Fermín Murillo and Mondeño. I had befriended Ernest Hemingway and John Fulton. I was so damned confident, and slightly more than cocky and arrogant. I was shocked, upon seeing my first corrida de toros in Tijuana.
How could these so-called “aficionados” be so damned stupid? I was an ass, and today, at times, find myself being accused of the same sins.
But, just as fear had finally caught up with me, that bloody afternoon, in Spain, I quickly discovered how ignorant I really was, and set out to read everything in print about the Fiesta of The Bulls, the performing art that had so totally captured my imagination and would come to dominate the rest of my life.
After devouring “Death In The Afternoon” (concluding that Hemingway didn’t really know as much about bullfighting as his reputation might justifiably demand), I then ventured into fiction. The first novel that I read was The Brave Bulls, which totally enchanted me.
Today, nearly a half century later, I decided to re-read The Brave Bulls, and my earlier enchantment became a bit tarnished. Not that it isn’t a good read; it is. But, the story line, itself, has become somewhat clichéd. Matador discovers fear. Matador recovers confidence and registers clamorous triumph. All live happily, ever after. But, the underlying philosophies of The Brave Bulls are so profound, it makes the novel a genuine classic.
One aspect of the book became apparent to me. I believe that The Brave Bulls was translated from Spanish. It contains many terms that make sense in Spanish, but don’t do well in English. The punctuation, spelling, and grammar are frequently questionable. There are no accents or ñ’s. But, those are minor criticisms when compared to the passionate theme of passion that the story represents.
The story is apparently set in the pre-peto era, a time when I don’t believe that I could have fathomed becoming an aficionado. The scenario of the bodies of dead horses, lying around the arena, would have caused me to leave the tendidos, even before the first bull died.
It’s the story of Luis Bello, a top-tiered Mexican matador, and all of the trials, tribulations, romance, triumph, drunkenness, and tragedy that one might anticipate in a bullfight novel that, at last count, was in its 14th press run.
In spite of the shortcomings of the story, Lea was a wonderful writer and an outstanding artist. His illustrations, alone, make The Brave Bulls worthy of reading (and re-reading). He had a special talent as an artist and as a writer.
“The disemboxing was dramatic and fascinating for everyone who loved the bulls. It was better than setting off dangerous fireworks, standing close, lighting them with a short fuse. The crowd took up silent stations on the platform built atop one of the high walls on the plaza corrals. The truck drove to the mouth of the unloading chute so that the head gate of the first bull box fit against it squarely. Chon Munoz and his helper Miguel, who wanted to be a torero, entered the corrals; Gomez climbed with Policarpo to stand atop the bull boxes.
“The very wood of those boxes seemed alive, squeaking and shaking queerly with the power confined within them. Gomez could fee the impressiveness of that dark invisible power so close under him. The least movement and shifting of his weight brought violence. Horns struck the planking so hard they stung his feet through the soles of his shoes.”
“Aficionados of the true red bone are often ignorant of the meaning of our festival,” the Engineer said, sipping his manzanilla. “It is true that all the arts are surrounded by cults and loose tongues embroidering upon meanings far removed from the impulses that give birth to those arts. It is nevertheless necessary to have philosophy to view an art with understanding.”
“Let me remind you, Engineer,” Santana said, “that most of the human race are far from considering bullfighting an art. To them, it is a bloody sport, a debased and useless violence.”
“A good point, Santana,” old Alberto Iriate said. “Let us go farther into this inquiry of the Engineer’s philosophy.”
“For that matter,” the Engineer said, “none of the great arts originally came into being as art. Art grows from what is first a utility or a pastime. The festival of the bulls, for instance, grew from both. First it was a hunt for meat in the mountains of Spain, and then later a sporting pastime for horsemen armed with lances, before spectators. But, it developed. In the beginning, music was perhaps no more than grunting while beating two sticks together, and painting was the daubing of dots on cave walls and jugs. They are more than that now. And, a corrida de toros is more than a sport.”
“It is of course necessary,” old Iriate put in, “to understand our festival is not a sport but a spectacle. It is a form of drama as certainly as the works of Sophocles. But what a difference between the happenings on a stage or in a poem, and the happenings in a plaza!”
“Exactly,” the Engineer said. “The festival of the bulls is the only art form in which violence, bloodshed and death are palpable and unfeigned. It is the only art in which the artist deals actual death and risk actual death, as if a poet were called upon to scan his lines with his life. It is the contemplation of this visible violence and actual death that gives the art its peculiar power, gentlemen.”
“It is also that actuality which confuses the art with sport and confounds foreigners who find real blood a revulsion or a morbid thrill,” Santana said. “All arts, even the most abstract,” Don Alberto broke in again, “are essential creations to thrill. To allow man to participate in God’s designs at one step removed from the anguish of living them. Sitting safely in a chair.”
“The heart of the matter is this,” said the Engineer. “There is enormous difference between the thrill given by art and the thrill given by merely exciting forms of peril. The difference, let us say, between a corrida de toros and a motorcycle race. Peril moves us simply as witnesses to a gripping body sensation. Violence, or peril, made significant by art simplifies the sensation beyond the body, distills it, lifts it above the realm of mere incident. A corrida de toros, by the token of art, presents us with a moving image and symbol of our own hearts grappling with violence and death.”
The truths contained in the preceding paragraphs contain more honesty and love than volumes, written by many other authors. They are the things that anti-taurinos will never grasp, and villamelones will never understand.
Olé to Tom Lea and The Brave Bulls, a true monument to the dignity and honor of the world’s most misunderstood performing art, and a must read for aficionados of the bulls.