Death in the Afternoon

2008 October 24

Vicente Barrera

Sometimes, reading on very different topics can give deep insights in tango. Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway is such a book. I thought of tango often when reading his treaty on bullfighting.

While not being as deadly or controvertial as the bullfighting, tango is also a culture full of rituals and things you have to know to really appreciate. And it was the parts that was guiding the novice to understand the rich culture of bullfighting and its meaning that really made me think of tango.

Hemingway is an excellent writer, of course, so it is impossible to summarize this extraordinary book in a blog post, and adding value even harder, but I will try to give an idea of what made me think of tango in this book:

I enjoyed the descriptions of how people are initiated into a new world, and how this entering a different world takes place. Also how some find out that it is not for them. I have never seen a bullfight, but Hemingway suggests that I would learn very early whether it is something for me. As was the case for the tango, I knew very soon that tango was for me.

Hemingway describes how the people new to bullfighting appreciate very different things of the drama than the connoisseur, as it takes a lot of knowledge and experience to appreciate the finer points of the art of bullfighting. While the beginner is more likely to appreciate the more flashy appearance with costumes, horses etc, appearing fairly early in the process. While the expert sees right through the crowd pleasing acts and appreciates a matador (literally ‘killer’) that is daring, brave and performs the act of killing with precision and without cowardry.

The ritual of the bullfight is also something intrigueing. There is never a happy ending. The bull always dies. If the matador cannot kill the bull, is injured or killed, the bull is still killed in the end. So while a bullfight can clearly be very exciting, it doesn’t sound like much fun. The bullfight goes straight into the core. Life and death. And it is very very real.  The matador is always in danger of great wounds or losing his life. The bull always dies.

And this reminded me how much I appreciate the rituals of the milongas. Coming, hearing the music from afar. The cabeceo, the tandas, everybody on the floor moving as one…  The chit-chat in between songs. Accompanying the lady back to her table. The tango ends, and the spell is broken.

It was very interesting to read about how the matadors use tricks to make the bull move closer and closer, until it is so close that the bullfighter gets blood on his clothes. The bullfighter controlling every move of the bull, only twisting his wrist or turning his torso ever so slightly. How different moves were invented by this and that bullfighter, and changed the world of bullfighting. How cowards pretend to be brave, only to be disclosed by the expert eye. The real masters. The great art. The bullfight is a staged tragedy of life and death. Maybe tango is a staged romance. Both very real indeed.

Then you have the crowd pleasing tricks versus real skill. And the responsibility of the conoisseur. This strung a chord with the never ending tango debates on styles, favourite dancers, nuevo versus traditional.  Some advice from the old man. (And this indeed applies to tango as well):

…there is one thing you can do and that is know what is good and what is bad, to appreciate the new but let nothing confuse your standards. You can continue to attend bullfights even when they are bad; but never applaud what is not good. You should, as a spectator, show your appreciation of the good and valuable work that is essential but not brilliant. You should appreciate the proper working and correct killing of a bull that is impossible to be brilliant with. A bullfighter will not be better than his audience very long. If they prefer tricks to sincerity they soon get the tricks. If a really good bullfighter is to come and to remain honest, sincere, without tricks and mystifications there must be a nucleus of spectators that he can play for when he comes.

Highly recommended!

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS