When perhaps the greatest matador in history, José Tomás, returned to the ring from his inexplicable five-year retirement in 2007, the Spanish press ran with the headline, “And The Myth Was Made Flesh.” At that time, I had never seen him bullfight, and thought it pure journalistic hyperbole. Since then I have and have chosen this headline myself as a result. The Agence-France Presse released this report on his astonishing re-emergence from near-death and appalling injury:
Jose Tomas makes triumphant comeback to bullring in Spain
VALENCIA, Spain — Acclaimed Spanish bullfighter Jose Tomas made a triumphant comeback to the bullring Saturday, receiving a standing ovation more than a year after a bloody goring in Mexico that almost killed him. The 35-year-old, wearing a purple and gold outfit, offered his first bull of the night, a 502-kilogramme beast, to the doctors who had helped him recover. He was less successful with his second bull, a 556-kilo four-and-a-half-year-old, but delighted the sell-out crowd of 11,000, many of whom had traveled from overseas to see the spectacle in the eastern city of Valencia. Tomas was seriously gored and almost died in a bullfight April 24 last year in Aguasclientes, Mexico. A 470-kilo (1,000-pound) bull named Navegante, his second bull of the evening, thrust its horn into the muscle of Tomas’s left thigh, puncturing the artery and causing the bullfighter to lose about half of his blood. In September he will be able to fight at Barcelona’s Monumental ring in what may be the last La Merced festival before a bullfighting ban in the Catalonia region comes into force next year. Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved
In celebration of this return, I have put below my description of what I believe to Tomás’s greatest corrida de toros, in Jerez de la Frontera in 2009, where he fought alongside the matadors El Cid, who featured in my Prospect magazine article that led to my becoming a bullfighter (available here), and my great friend Juan José Padilla (whom you can read more about in my The Pamplona Post article here).
(I am not alone in holding the view that this was his best fight: both my friend Franciso Núñez Benjumea – whose father’s bulls were fought that day – and my teacher and friend, the great former matador and bullfighting commentator Eduardo Dávila Miura, said the same thing to me after I had been in the ring with Francisco’s cattle on his ranch in Portugal.) This is an abridged version of chapter 13 of my recent book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight from Profile Books. A chapter which even the toughest review, the Sunday Times, called “the book’s best set piece.” (And the reviews have been good: “Complex and ambitious… compelling and lyrical.” Mail on Sunday “An engrossing introduction to Spain’s ‘great feast of art and danger’.” The Times “Thrilling… an engrossing introduction to bullfighting.” Financial Times “An informative and breathtaking volume of gonzo journalism” The Herald) I have included photos of Tomás by my friend Carlos Cazalis, World Press Photo Award winner that same year. He has compiled these photos and many others into a book on Tomás which requires votes on the website here for publication. Please pay it a visit. To say Carlos is close to his subject is to understate it. In the photo below Tomás is performing a caleserina, named after Carlos’s grandfather, the Mexican matador Alfonso Ramirez ‘El Calesero’.
“ON arrival, I found Jerez full, far fuller than the feria had made it on any other day, and all the people in the streets were clutching cushions for the bullring. The draw of Tomás in the town was overwhelming, as the sevenfold increase in ticket prices indicated it would be. Three weeks before the fight I had been unable to buy tickets at all, and had had to buy mine on resale from a website, and even then it was still a fortnight’s salary (if my book advance counts as a year’s) for a bad ticket high up in the sun in a provincial ring. Those close to the action in the shade were changing hands for a thousand euros each. All this was for a matador I had never seen fight, not even on television. In fact, I try not to watch bullfighting on television, as without the ambience of the arena it really does just look like a man goading a dumb beast into charging him. Unless you can feel the physical threat of the bull, which does not exist on screen (who would stand and watch the events in the street that are depicted so glibly in most Hollywood movies), all one sees is the control of the situation the matador exerts. However, Tomás has refused to fight in a televised corrida since March 2000. Which, of course, only serves to increase his mystique. As do his other actions, like fighting in small rings because only they will give him the proportion of the box-office he regards as fair. So, in the end, he takes far less money than he could, turning down hundreds of thousands of euros for one afternoon in Madrid, because he believed it was worth more. Just as he returned his Gold Medal for Fine Arts to the King – one of only four ever given to matadors – because he thought the next matador to receive it, Francisco Rivera Ordóñez, was not good enough and was given it for reasons of favouritism and nepotism (I shall go into this more later). However, what I had heard about him fighting was unbelievable. He divided the aficionados, which is not hard – these people with their tribal loyalties love division almost as much as they love bullfighting – but the reason I had most often heard is that he fights with ‘demasiado sangre’, ‘too much blood’, and by blood, they mean his own. Even a cursory glance through the press clippings of his bullfights shows his face and body drenched in blood like something from a Jacobean tragedy. I understand how those, especially in Madrid, who ‘aestheticise’ the bullfight don’t like to be confronted with such memento mori, such visible reminders that their heroes are mortal. But suddenly and for no stated reason, at the height of his powers at twenty-six years old, Tomás retired from both bullfighting and public life (the latter being a small change, as he famously shunned publicity). Then, just as suddenly, he reappeared in Barcelona five years later in 2007, saying only that ‘living without bullfighting is not living at all’, and causing that stadium’s first sell-out in decades. And his return heralded a return to a form if anything more dangerous. When he fought in the Feria de Jerez in 2008 with the same bulls I was to see exactly one year later, he nearly died when the tapering horn of the bull entered his neck deep enough to leave a wound larger than the orbit of his eye, causing lacerations to his jugular. And yet still he fought on oblivious, killing the bull and saluting the crowd with an ear before going to the infirmary. He returned to take two more ears from the second bull. As a phenomenon, the general view is that he is either a genius or a holy fool. His first manager, the former banderillero Antonio Corbacho, was said to have passed on his fascination with bushido, ‘the way of the samurai’, to the young Tomás, who took its principles to heart, especially that of facing death with honour to the point of holding it in contempt or simply ignoring it. I would see. As I entered the bullring, I said a hello to my friend the matador Juan José Padilla, who was also fighting today, but his focus was intense. This was the town of his birth and he was fighting on a ticket with a matador whom the entire taurine world holds in awe if not always respect. We took our seats, which were in the burning sun, despite the price of the tickets, and settled in to watch Padilla fight first, as the most senior bullfighter (he became a full matador in 1994, Tomás in 1995 and El Cid in 2000.) Padilla opened in classic Padilla style, caping on both knees, placing his own banderillas, and yet the crowd gave their local boy only light applause, everyone waiting with baited breath for Tomás, for the myth to be made flesh. And my God it was. He opened the caping with the fresh galloping bull with six verónicas on one knee, immediately outdoing Padilla’s showier largas cambiadas de rodillas, ‘long exchanges of the knees’, with their classicism. This was quickly reflected by the crowd’s olés, which as always began on the second pass (it is the series that is congratulated, not the first pass, which may be accidental), and increased in volume until he performed a remate which turned and stopped the bull in its tracks for the finale, eliciting immediate applause. Then, after the first lance wound by the picador, Tomás took the bull away from the horse for a quite, a series of passes between pics, in the centre of the ring. Here he performed five chicuelinas and his ‘art’ began fully to show. At five foot ten, he is almost painfully thin and narrow-boned, making him appear taller than he is without the effect of dwarfing the bull, as happens with larger fighters. So the turning on the spot required by the chicuelina, in which half the cape is flapped to the bull and then the body rotates as the bull passes, appears to draw cape and bull into a terrifying collapsing orbit timed so the horns brush the cape at exactly the moment it encases the body, rendering it immobile.
After this series, the crowd reached the crescendo of olés on their feet, so their applause for the remate which stopped the bull – a revolera with the cape spinning round his waist at a perfect horizontal – was a ready-made standing ovation. However, it is as we move to the final act of the drama, to the muleta, that I really see why people describe him as the ‘phenomenon’ and themselves as ‘Tomásistas’. He begins with a manoeuvre I have never seen, the estatuario, the ‘statuary’ (as in the art of making statues). Standing in profile to the bull with his feet together, the sword held directly out in front of him horizontally, with the muleta hanging down from it, he glances sideways at the bull some twenty yards away. He gives the muleta a small shake, and the bull, having decided the muleta is a threat, commits to a charge at a full gallop. Tomás then does not move again, trusting that the bull has decided the muleta – one of whose edges flows down along his legs – is the real target. Not looking at the animal, he literally is a statue as it hits the yielding cloth and passes harmlessly through. Bewildered, the bull turns on the other side and, now ten yards away, stares at the man and the cloth. Tomás shakes again, and this time it charges harder and faster, twisting its head in the cloth, seeking to destroy its opponent, the movement putting its own flanks out of alignment so its hindquarters smash into Tomás’s legs, knocking his feet apart. This he corrects with a small shuffle as the bull turns again, this time seven yards away. He sends a thrill of movement through the muleta and the bull charges again, this time rearing its head upwards as it passes through, rather than side to side as before. It is trying to find the main body of the enemy that is mocking it with this lure. Again Tomás does not move an inch, waiting for the bull to turn, which it does. He remains still for a second longer this time – the bull is breathless from the great efforts involved in accelerating its muscular bulk to its top speed. Then he moves the muleta again, and again the bull comes through, rearing, both forehooves coming three feet off the ground. As it turns this time, Tomás shuffles forward to find the right place to cite it from, because now it is a mere three feet from him. As the bull reaches the cloth, he lets the fabric fall from the sword entirely into his left hand, so it goes down to the ground, forcing the bull to foreshorten its charge and stop while turning, allowing him to merely stand and stare at it for a moment, before he calmly walks away to allow the bull to catch its breath. He begins again a few moments later and enters into a series of passes with the muleta in the left hand, sword in the right behind his back, which are so classic in their form, so pure, so wounding in their seriousness – and I know that this will never come across in prose, but their sadness – that I find myself on my feet applauding at the end of each series with the rest of the crowd. There is not one of us who is not bewitched by this man’s artistry and courage.
Although courage is not the word for what he does, nor is contempt for death. As he fights he has a studied seriousness, a focus, which is perfectly weighted for the task at hand because it is on the task, not on its possible repercussions. When the pass calls for his focus to be on the muleta, he focuses on the muleta, not on the bull galloping towards him. Only when the bull is almost touching the muleta does he widen his gaze to the two to achieve templar, the matching of one’s own rhythm to the bull’s so it never reaches the elusive cloth; but, equally, the cloth never goes so far in front of the bull that it seeks another target. However, it is not just in his actions that Tomás achieves a perfection of technique (and I do mean to say perfection, this is not hyperbole), but in his ‘being’. He is not a handsome man, he is too thin and spindly, and yet the suit of lights with its braided shoulders and short jacket gives the rotation of his torso above his waist an elegance of line which other matadors with more athletic proportions lack. The long thin legs are grounded in feet perfectly held together or angled, dancer-like, against each other. The grace is not sexual – there is nothing homoerotic here – but the aesthetics of a perfect form fitting function. He does not have the body of a sportsman or a fighter, because you do not fight bulls (although in English I have to use that verb, in Spanish the verb is torear, which simply has no translation because we do not do it). He has the body of a man trying to create the greatest elegance possible with the bull, the cape and his own body, a shifting tableau designed to strike the part of the mind which perceives beauty just as the other part which recognises risk adds a sort of background music of danger. In fact, in order to describe properly what he does so well, one really has to describe what he doesn’t do. For example, the aesthetic of the bullfighter is largely based on being upright and rigid. It shows pride and immovability in the face of the massive streak of darkness that is the charging bull. However, so many bullfighters achieve it by locking their joints, by overdoing it, by ‘insisting’ on themselves, as I have written before. Tomás just is upright. He has good posture, however, his muscles are loose, his physique relaxed, a dancer at rest trailing a cloth in the dust to draw pretty geometrical shapes. Meanwhile, swirling around him, occasionally knocking into him, is a 1,212lb bull moving at a gallop, frantically trying to find him, kill him, take out the threat, destroy the frustration. And these are not the short series of passes I saw in Seville, these are nine or ten passes long, every single time the horns and body of the bull grazing across his body, so that his lavender and gold suit of lights becomes redder and redder from the blood of the bull. In fact, so precise is his passing of the bull that in any other circumstance it would be obscene, for when it passes him, the bull brushes past his crotch, so that the genital area of his suit is black and sodden with bull’s blood, and yet there is nothing ridiculous or grotesque about this. As an old drama teacher used to say to me, ‘Anything, no matter how laughable, that can be justified, can be done or said on stage. You just have to earn it!’ Maybe, one day, he will see José Tomás and smile at his own wisdom. Back in the ring, Tomás lines up the bull and flies over the horns with his sword, totally disregarding his own safety. Although people always talk of the perfect kill as a matador going over the horns, there is always a point at which he must deviate to the side to avoid the rising horn-points as the bull realises something deadly is now looming over it and stabbing it between the shoulder blades. However, Tomás, by resting his entire weight on his sword through his wrist, allows his entire body to pass between the horns, and then uses the bull’s reflex to rear upwards to push him back out from between the horns. Incredibly, he finds safety through a total and complete disregard for his own life, where even a momentary hesitation or weakness would leave him gravely injured. Now I understood what people were talking about. Now I saw what they meant when some said he was the best that had ever lived. They weren’t claiming they had watched three centuries of bullfighting on foot, or even one century of bullfighting for art, they were saying that when you watch Tomás fight you have the sense that you simply couldn’t imagine anything better, that there simply couldn’t be anything better. Tomás took two ears, but we continued to wave our scraps of programmes – we had no white handkerchiefs – with the rest of the crowd to demand the tail for a full minute afterwards. It was not given. El Cid fought the next bull and I hear he won an ear. The trouble is, that is not what I remember, because all throughout his fight I was talking about Tomás with my neighbours: about the closeness of the bull, the elegance of the line, the perfection of the style, the fact that there was simply no denying it – it was art. Cruelty was forgotten, hesitation and self-doubt had equally flown out the window. We were besotted. And not as part of some general crowd hysteria or bloodlust. Far from it, this was three people trying to talk over one another about what they had seen as individuals, felt as individuals, and adored as individuals. When Padilla, whom we knew, returned to the ring, we did look up from our haze and it was then we saw the terrible consequence of incomparable greatness on those around it. When he had left the ring after the first bull, it was clear Padilla felt unhappy, perhaps even a little betrayed by the people, his people. However, he had known they were there for Tomás and hadn’t minded, but when he saw how much they adored this man from Madrid it hurt. Then when they gave an ear to El Cid, who is from Seville, Padilla decided to do what he did best: defy death. There is something awful in watching a friend twist his pride and his undeniably great courage into a tight little knot and risk his life out of mere jealousy. Padilla went into the ring to impress, and in doing so, and in contrast to the images of Tomás still replaying in my mind’s eye, he came across as reckless and even artless. He brought the bull so close to his body that it was constantly buffeting him. On any other occasion one might have wondered at the incredible skill that allowed him to make the horns merely graze his body rather than penetrate, but there was no beauty in the movements, and ugliness in the motives. Every audience member seemed to be thinking the same thing simultaneously: ‘Padilla, we forgot about Padilla!’ And he took his revenge on our nerves, forcing us to the edge of our seats with his ludicrously dangerous caping, staring up at the crowd rather than at the bull with accusing eyes, the jilted lover standing at the cliff’s edge.For fifteen terrible minutes he fought a bull in the English sense of the word, giving it an even chance, tearing the fabric of his jacket in a dozen places, blood running from small cuts on his legs and torso, and miraculously not being seriously injured. And this made it worse, because he is capable of fighting that close, as close as Tomás, closer perhaps. However, Padilla is a man without a strong concept of art, and without anything but the rough-hewn natural elegance of the gifted craftsman. What was more, he was now being given sympathy and solace where he wanted only accolade. One man in the crowd shouted at him, ‘¡No! ¡Basta!’ (‘No! Enough!’) To which he snarled back, ‘¡Soy Padilla!’ (‘I am Padilla!’) He killed furiously and well and was given an ear, one felt, almost as a prize of guilt or consolation. He took it with a look of helpless rage, lapping the ring in a perfunctory manner, not even looking up as he passed us. Despite this, as Padilla slipped out of the ring, everyone forgot their guilt and their allegiances and once again stared at the Maestro, wondering how he would top his previous performance. This bull came in with a reluctance to charge which led Tomás to abandon his pre-picador caping, and I leant forward, wondering how this artist would deal with the eternal problem of a bad bull. Between the two pics the bull received, Tomás again tried to display his skill with the large cape with chicuelinas, but the bull was too easily distracted. Certain members of the crowd started to whistle and call out ‘Es un toro manso’, literally ‘It is a tame bull’. The whistling signifying that they wanted the bull replaced; after all, the Maestro was clearly on incredible form and the crowd had spent a fortune on their tickets (Jerez has the highest unemployment of a city its size in all Europe). Although the matador never himself signals directly that he is unhappy with a bull, for that would undermine the symbolic authority of the president, I have many times seen them spit, swear, shake their heads, stare at the ground or the heavens, and generally make it pretty damned clear that they are unhappy with a bull. Whether they want to actually change it, or are just setting up an excuse in case they fail to fight it well, I do not know. However, Tomás did none of these things. Even as he performed the flawed quite – taking the bull from the horse after the first pic, attempting the chicuelinas, completing the series, returning the bull for the second and final pic – he seemed to be evaluating and calculating. He kept changing position, finding the bull’s preference to charge threats appearing in the left side of its field of vision. He would wait patiently for the crowd to quiet down so the bull was drawn to him as the sole threat present in its mind. And he gave the bull time to breathe and relax, so that when it did finally commit to the charge, it had the wind and the will to do so fully. Even after his assistants placed the banderillas, he continued in this task, showing a knowledge of the bull and a patience that I had never seen in the ring before. The amazing thing was how unpredictable the bull’s behaviour was as he did this – forcing Tomás to get close before it charged, and then leaping forwards without warning, hooking its horns from side to side. And yet his calm never slipped, and his concentration never wavered. In fact, he seemed to almost be downplaying the danger and the drama other matadors heighten and boast of, unpicking the problem with a steady hand, utterly ignoring the danger the bull presented, but never ignoring the bull itself. In fact, one could say that while his focus was entirely on the bull, his intent was not, it was on what he could make of the bull. This was an artist working with difficult materials in the shadow of death, and ignoring it, focusing merely on the work. The stopping and starting nature of this sort of caping removed the flow of the earlier bull, but it was fascinating to watch, like seeing a master painting over a moth-eaten canvas, riddled with holes. And yet there were moments, great long series of passes of eight or nine naturales with the left hand, slow and deep and sad and profound.
And then, to show the crowd that this was still a lethal artform he was working in, Tomás moved in front of this complicated, unpredictable bull so that he was less than three feet away and erected the cape sideways from his body, like the estatuario but facing the bull rather than in profile, and performed the terrifying trademark of his slain hero Manolete: the manoletina.
The bull charged and reared haphazardly through, again and again and again, and yet Tomás barely shifted his feet and was barely more than a few inches from the bull’s horns, but was not touched by it once, despite the fact that he appeared not even to look at the bull. It was mastery: pure, clean and utterly honest. He killed with exactly the same cleanliness, and again, despite the paucity of the bull for fighting purposes, was awarded both ears of the bull. And again, I do not remember what El Cid did, but he managed to get two ears from a crowd revelling in the great feast of art and danger they had dined upon. He and Tomás were hoisted on to the shoulders of the crowd, along with the farm manager from the ranch of Núñez del Cuvillo, and the president ordered the main gate opened so they could leave the ring victoriously. We left, ecstatic, enthralled and exhausted, into the night, to drink with Nicolás’s crazy friends in Sanlúcar and talk about ‘the bulls, the bulls!’ And I had forgotten about Padilla, my friend, and his embarrassment, and I had forgotten about the suffering of the bulls. For that is the conjuring trick great drama performs: it makes you identify with the protagonist, and to hell with everyone else. Which is fine when you deal in fictions, but what is it when the stakes are real?
The full book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight can be purchased at Amazon by clicking here.