'Death in the Afternoon' by Ernest Hemingway - Applied Tragedy

'Death in the Afternoon' is more than an explanation of bullfighting. It is a fundamental examination of tragedy - in life as well as art.
As Hemingway points out in the book bullfighting is no sport -such a suggestion is absurd. There is no competition, the outcome is always (more or less) certain, and the merit for the aficionado is in the artistry and accomplishment of an established dramatic sequence, much like the appreciation of formal Greek tragedy or a ballet. There is a reason why our term for an equally deeply impassioned and informed enthusiast derives from bullfighting, and this becomes clear during the course of the book.

La CorridaA matador covered in blood and gold brocade during a bullfight in Andalusia
At no point does the author seek to change one's views on the morality of the blood-art (as it can be no blood-sport). He even begins with the most distasteful aspects of the corrida, and never shies away from describing its worst with its best qualities, in his eyes. In fact, the revulsion of the sport to many seems inevitable, even necessary - not just because it reveals some kind of individual or cultural foible, but because the bloody and often gruesome display reveals one's attitude toward tragedy and death.

He spends more time exposing the weaknesses of contemporary bullfighters than praising their courage. The bloody carnage wrought on the bullfighters gains far more attention in 'Death in the Afternoon' than in Spanish media. Hemingway readers will recognise the attraction of such precarious activity for the writer, who had a life long fascination with and propensity for near lethal injury, and ultimately a preoccupation with mortality.

The great advantage for the modern reader is the sheer volume of illustrating archive footage and photography which can be found, which Hemingway almost certainly would not have had access to or awareness of. This comes in particular interest when he describes the intricacies and personalities of different matadors, whom he describes with the detail for those who would never be able to see with their own eyes.

As you might expect, the work is overflowing with rich anecdotes of Spanish life, some beautiful, some bawdy, often hilarious, always well observed. This is especially true for the accompanying extensive glossary (constituting over a quarter of the entire text), which might amount to being the finest glossary to any book in the English language. Just look up the entry for 'Tacones' [heels] for a good example of Hemingway's piratical approach to literature and villainy.

The book is a fascinating read for anyone who wants to understand tragedy as an art form. Why should humanity find such perennial need for stories of downfall and death? No matter whether you believe bullfighting should be condemned or celebrated, it is the genius and insight of Hemingway which provides the unique elucidation.