Bull-Fight in Bayonne (Stierkampf in Bayonne)

TuchoPyrenees

He roams the open fields of the stud, the lord of the herd. He doesn’t know that he cost six thousand francs, but he does know that he is the absolute sovereign, the ruler over the calves and all the cows. He never sees a human being. When he feels like it, he runs through the juicy grass, or dry, brown stubble. He rolls in soft hay. He grazes, gazes… That’s how he spends his youth. The one who will kill him one day lives far away, in a town. He inhales the tangy air which blows down from the mountains, and roars

One day they come, on horses and with trained oxen, dumb, castrated ex-bulls. He is separated from the wild herd, he runs with the townsmen and ends up in a waggon, a dark, rolling stable. From the station platform, the herd trots, carefully protected from irritations, to a high, round house. He spends twenty-four hours alone in the stall, nervous and restless. At four o’clock in the afternoon the door opens. The glaring sun shines in, he storms out, into the arena.

While they were fetching him, I passed through Bordeaux, where, for the first and last time on this trip, I celebrated a serious dinner, in the Chapeau Rouge, with a soft, velvety red wine. Away from Bordeaux, over the big Garonne bridge, to Bayonne. It was Sunday, which means bullfight.

They made a big scene about it in Paris last year. There is a law in France which forbids bullfighting with horses and the death of the bull, and if people from Provence or somewhere else want to present bullfights in the Paris Buffalo, it must not be the bloody version. And it isn’t. They are content with the Provence bull-running, in which the bull survives. But Bayonne is so close to the Spanish border that the bright colours in which Spain is shown in the atlas seem to have rubbed off. And there are also so many foreigners there, mostly Spaniards. In Lille, where nobody has any desire for bullfighting, it is forbidden, just like in Paris. In Bayonne it is not.

The high, round arena is to the North-East, a little outside the town, I didn’t really realize where I was, the river (Adour) and bridge were already behind me, and the whole town was underway. It rolled, walked, strolled, honked and drove its way to the arena. The sun was not shining, the sky was streaked blue and grey. The packed street smelled of dust and blood.

Did the Romans sit on stone steps in their arenas? Surely they also brought something soft to sit on; one can rent cushions. Everybody climbed over the steps, with their little cushions, found a place, waved, called, and laughed. A dreadful banda, which had previously blown its way through the town in red caps, trumpeted its soul out of its throat. Silence, followed by a fanfare. The President had entered his box.

Every bullfight is presided over by some dignitary. In Madrid it is the King with his bottom lip[1], in the larger provincial Spanish towns, the prefect, in the smaller ones, the mayor, or some uniformed member of the generality. He and his family dedicate the matadors, the bulls, the fight, the skill, and the death.

Der Marquis came over from Biarritz, with his ladies, by car. Now he approaches the balustrade of his box, which is in the gallery, removes his grey top hat with a stiff movement of his arm, and greets the people. There is not the least chance that the film director Ernst Lubitsch would let this man play a count for even ten yards. He may let him carry the tripod, but give him a role? No chance. There is so much petty provincial vanity in this tanned face. The knight has come down from his castle, and greets the dear serfs. The serfs make a lot of noise and wave their hats with a modicum of enthusiasm. The Count takes his seat. It can begin.

The troupe makes its slightly puny entry. There aren’t very many of them, and it’s all not particularly shiny. The first matadors, one of whom had just rolled up in a big coach, in the full splendour of his paraphernalia, with a round, rolled up pony-tail at the back of his head, kneel before the president’s box. The top hat and the Marquis are raised, the ones below mumble the traditional formula. The cast before us, in the arena and in the stands, is not Madrid. The bullfight is conducted, formally, just like in Spain, but the whole thing is still provincial.

We’re off.

The first of the six bulls comes racing out of the stable. And comes to a standstill. Music, light after the darkness of captivity, and so many people. What’s going on? He’s about to find out.

Juego do Capa. The nimble men with the red capes run to and fro in front of the pathetic cow. They wave their rags, and skip to one side. Anything which is done perfectly looks easy. There’s nothing to it, one thinks, and is mistaken. Walkers on Alpine paths who encounter these heavy, powerful, enormous animals, realize what a bull really is. These guys are teasing him like a puppy. Then come the first horses.

They are old nags, fit for the knacker’s yard, worn-out creatures who have laboured, drawn and carried all their lives. Every job deserves its pay. This is apparently theirs. They have one eye covered by a patch, which gives them a strange, disreputable, scruffy appearance. They put you in mind of tramps‘ horses, or of inns in the Thirty Years War. They are ridden into the arena with their bound eye turned inwards. They are ridden by the Picadores.

I had always thought that the Picador fights the bull on horseback, and that sometimes this fight ends badly for the horse. That is not the case. The Picador is a butcher.

Nobody can fight a full-grown bull if it has not already had to deal with two or three horses, and if it doesn’t do so, it’s a serious problem for the matador. What the bull does with the horses costs him considerable physical effort. He spends the best part of his strength on these victims. A man in a red shirt leads the first horse by the bridle. It snorts.

The bull looks at the horse. The picador allows himself a brave gesture with his spear. The bull approaches. Red-shirt keeps good hold of the horse and turns its flank to the bull, to make it easy for him. The bull accepts gratefully. He takes a short run up at the horse, crashes into him, and digs his right horn into the skinny body. He sinks his head and digs into him. The whole thing looks as though he is fulfilling an unavoidable formality. The horse scrabbles as well as it can on its free hooves. Two of them are in the air. Then the bull withdraws his horn.

The underside of the horse is open. Some intestines and mucous are hanging out of him, he wants to lie down. No chance. The picador, who had dismounted, straightens up the stirrup and remounts the rest of the horse. The bull is supposed to charge again. The bull charges again. Now the horse has a grey-pink bag hanging between its legs. It gets caught up in its loops and steps on them. The picador has dismounted. And now the good old beast is allowed to walk soundlessly right across the arena. It wants to go out where it came in, into the stable, away from here. They let him out, and everyone’s attention turns back to the bull.

I have a look around. I know that look in the eyes of some spectators when Schmeling’s[2] punches thud into Samson-Körner. Any sport can be abused, but there is none of that here. I miss the best tricks of the cape twirlers, who are dancing the light fandango with the bull, but there is not the least bloodlust to be seen in anyone’s face or eye. Are these people cruel?

The wise man said, “Another basic fault with Christianity is that it has unnaturally separated man from the animal kingdom, to which he largely belongs, and acknowledges only him, regarding animals as just things. The significant role which animals play throughout Brahmanism and Buddhism, compared to its complete absence in Judeo-Christianity, confirms the imperfection of the latter, even though we are so used to such absurdity in Europe.“ And, „Look at the appalling indifference with which our Christian mob treats animals, kills or maims or tortures them pointlessly, laughing, and exerts even those which are most useful, the horses, when they are old, until they die under its attentions.“ Because, „One would need to be blind in all senses or be completely chloroformed by the foetor judaicus to not realize that animals are essentially, and in the main, the same as us, and that the difference is in the accidental, the intellect, not in the substantial, the will. The world is not arbitrary, and the animals are not a product for us to use.” So, „We owe the animals justice, not mercy.“ So it is not cruelty, it is lack of sensitivity.

Next to me is a wonderfully disagreeable young man, he has come with two girlfriends, and has a right big mouth. He shouts „Ho!“ and „Ohé!“, and gives marks to the bull, the horses and the matadors. He is effectively in charge. As a bull was urgently attending to a horse, he called to the horse, „You don’t like that, do you? I know how you feel!“ I engage him in conversation, and he says, absolutely characteristically, at a particularly hideous moment, “But just look at the matador, nothing else exists!” Not for him. Not for anyone.

Still horses. The first bull slits one open and deals with the next two. Now he is angry and tired. And now he is confronted by the man.

Everything which happens here is according to ancient rituals. Each term, each movement, every choice, is traditional. One of these traditions is the suerte of the banderillas. These spikes, which are stuck into the neck of the furious bull, to make him even more furious, are shown to him first. It is chivalrous to make him aware of what is coming next, and perhaps he really is interested. So the banderilla man positions himself ten yards in front of the animal, whose flanks are heaving like bellows, raises the spikes and lowers them slowly, as though he wanted to charm the bull with two magic wands. Then he runs towards the bull. It is the most gracious and elegant movement that I saw in he whole bull-fight. The man’s life depends on an inch. The bull sees him coming, he snorts at him, he thrusts at him, into thin air, and the  banderillas are hanging from his thick neck, waving up and down. A little blood flows down them. The runner had made only a slight movement to avoid the thrust which had just slit the horses open.

Now the bull is really angry. He bellows, protesting and threatening, he whirls up sand with his front hooves, tries to shake the long spikes with their barbs, which only bores them even deeper into his flesh. He is again surrounded by the capes of the capeadors, and a second pair of banderillas are stuck into him. This time the runner was so close that he was almost standing between the horns. The crowd roared. And then a third pair of barbs. In the meantime, a calm man has approached the presidential box. The bull doesn’t notice anything, he is busy with his rags. But what was agreed between the president and the man in the arena, by genuflection and raising the top hat, is his death. The man is presented with a sword and a red cape.

The bull charges the red rag like a bull to a red rag. The man hardly moved aside. And now he shows him the sharp sword. The bull stares back stupidly. He is very close to me now, a big, black beast. Red blood runs in little streams down his wet hide. Something white blinks in his eye every few seconds, like a spark or flash of light. The matador approaches him and takes aim. The bull stands there with the sword and three pairs of barbs in his back, in a rage. Is that the end? The crowd is ecstatic, but it is not the end. A second sword please. It is the end. He no longer reacts to the reddest cape, he roars dully, falls to the side, twitches. Finished. A salute, a bow, grey top hat, a wave of the hat. Bravo, cheers and thank you very much. L’Arrastre, a team of six mules, drags the bull and the two horses out of the ring. Next please.

The next is a young, excited fellow, who comes tumbling out of his stable like a clown. He causes the people a lot of trouble, which he is probably supposed to. He pounds the horse which his predecessor had left behind lightly injured, to a bloody lump, the picador fell off, but came to no harm. The bull attacks a horse so badly that it already can’t get back up after the first blow, and just lies there. I can see its big, gentle eye clearly. The eye doesn’t understand. It asks, „Why? Why?“ It takes a long time before the man comes with the small, stout knife, which he slams into the horse’s skull like a wedge. It takes so long. The band plays, a gentle waltz floats over the dying, grey horse, gentle and swinging. I know what the body lying in the sand looks like from underneath. The knacker comes. Nothing else exists.

This bull has a hard death. The toreador needed 6 (six!) swords, and the crowd became impatient. „Butchery!“ screamed the sensitive people. White handkerchiefs were waved towards the president, but he makes no move, he just watches, with his head resting on the balustrade, bored. His ladies do not watch. The bull finally falls, to relieved, non-unanimous applause. And while everyone is involved with the dying bull, the grey horse lies in the sand at the eastern end of the ring. They have covered him with a blanket, but you can still see his rump and tail. He is still, and it seems to me that this corpse glows gently.

Number three doesn’t want to come out of his stable. Mocking shouts of, “Coward!” in the arena, which he can naturally not leave uncontradicted. He comes, passing the two gate-keepers, who stick two small spikes into him. Then he goes through the seventy-seven stations.

Six of them. Snorting jaws, rearing horses, unwilling horses who are dragged forward, one party trick by a matador: he taunts the angry bull sitting down, he slides ever nearer to him on the narrow strip of wood which encircles the inside of the arena like a round bench, giving him the tenth of a second start that he needs to stand up, in this game which is decided by a tenth of a second. But this bull is also gone in a quarter of an hour, dragged out by the mules with the red pom-poms. One torero, Emilio Mendez, stands as still as a statue before he thrusts, leaning slightly forward, like in the theatre. He is a dark, black man, and at this moment he looks exactly like Walter Hasenclever[3]. One bull wanders around with a barb in his neck, as though the rest of it had nothing to do with him. The rag wavers wave their rags: No messing around! Hey! Go and die! So he does them the favour.

For all that, no bullfighter is free of bruises and wounds; a bull may rarely get hold of him properly, but he is often caught by a horn, which can be a lot more dangerous than it seems: if the horn has just been in the insides of the horses, or just dug up the ground, even a slight injury can lead to tetanus.

I go outside shortly before the end. The stadium is surrounded by cabbies, coachmen, chauffeurs, servants and the public. It stands high against the sky, and suddenly seems sinister. A bullfight from outside… I now know what’s going on inside, I hear it in the shouts of the crowd. Everything is quiet at first. Now, he must have attacked his horse just now, I can feel the thud out here. The arena shouts, „Hyai!“ as one voice. „Hyai!“ And then a long roar and confused shouting. I stroll slowly through the cars.

How they love their toreadors! The Spaniards worship their bullfighting heroes like demigods. A few days ago, after they had broken his head with a wine bottle during a dispute, the great tenor of the arena, Nacional II, had a funeral like a general. No Pantheon would seem too much to them, for the great men. It’s probably the same everywhere, it‘s just that elsewhere it involves more scientific or intellectual airs, always expecting cultural progress.

Lord God of Spain! When you look down on your land on Sunday morning, agreeable odours rise to your nostrils, sweet incense and the homilies of your fat priests. But when you listen in the afternoon, you hear, „Hyai!“ from thirty or forty arenas. „Hyai!“, you hear the blowing of the bands, the confused shouts and the roars of the dying bulls. Every Sunday. In 1924, dear God, you could hear it two hundred and forty-eight times in Spain, not including the simple games that the young peasants play with young animals in small villages. Only the official ones: two hundred and forty-eight. In France in the same year, sixteen. Not many, but still more than in the year 1857 when bullfighting was forbidden. The prohibition has not been enforced for a long time. They are all there again, and they sanctify your Sabbath.

Now the people are streaming out of the tower of murder. If I want a carriage, I’ll have to hurry. Barbarism. But if there is another one tomorrow, I’ll be there.

Next Chapter: Safari to the Rich (Ausflug zu den reichen Leuten)

Author: Kurt Tucholsky

Published in:

Back to contents: TuchoPyrenees Tucholsky Pyrenees Book


[1] Alfonso XIII, a Bourbon

[2] German inter-war boxer

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