The ten-day Malaga feria kicks off next week and will feature eight bullfights, running from 14 to 21 August. If you're curious about the spectacle and are thinking of seeing a "corrida de toros" (literally "running of bulls"; "bullfight" is a handy but misleading translation), it's worth preparing yourself, as best you can, for what you'll see in the ring. I'd highly recommend reading the Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy's book On Bullfighting (1999), arguably the best introduction to the world of the bulls available in English.
Kennedy's research was meticulous. She attended corridas in Madrid and Seville, studied DVDs and read taurine magazines and books recommended to her by an aficionado friend. In On Bullfighting, she explains what happens during each of the spectacle's carefully-choreographed "tercios" (or thirds) in flowing, detailed prose. She also explores the morality of the corrida, looking hard at the uncomfortable realities of what plays out on the sand. I contacted Kennedy over email, via her Oxford-based agent, and asked what advice she would give to someone thinking of going to a corrida for the first time.
"You have to be aware that at least one thing will die,'' she wrote in her reply, implicitly referring to the fact that matadors, too, are sometimes killed and frequently seriously injured (the last matador to die in the ring was 36-year-old Iván Fandiño, fatally gored during a bullfight in France in June 2017).
"It makes you complicit in some things you may not like. And unless the matador is wonderful, it's not even going to approach an artistry that would begin to excuse a death. If you're up for it and okay with all that, you would really need to read up on it so that you understand what on earth is going on - and it's good to have a bit of Spanish so that you can chat with people watching and get that angle."
The moral question posed by the corrida is whether its art and beauty justify the punishment the bull suffers in the ring and, ultimately, its death. A second, equally challenging, question follows logically: if there is no art or beauty, is the corrida immoral? I have deployed what might be called the "aesthetic defence" many times in the past, but now I'm not so sure that it holds, because the last couple of corridas I attended were nowhere near good enough to justify an animal's death. Several of Spain's top matadors are scheduled to perform in this year's Malaga feria, but there is still no guarantee that they'll be able to produce anything elevating or beautiful.
Yet there is always the possibility that man and animal, working together, will create something unforgettable and when that happens the corrida can be intensely moving. Kennedy found that "the poise, the elegance, the weird gentleness of some matadors is remarkable... There can be a high degree of skill, whether you like the skill or not".
Her writing is also alive to the spectacle's symbolic aspects - those which hinge on our empathy for bull or man, or both. As she put it over email, "I think everyone understands what it's like to go out into the world and have it hurt you when you don't expect the blows and can't defend yourself - that whole scenario, the bull's journey, is very evocative".
The subtext to On Bullfighting concerns the spectacle's wider context - namely, our treatment of animals, especially those that are killed for our entertainment, whether aesthetic or gastronomic.
"When I was researching I wasn't a vegetarian and it's hard to have a credible position on cruelty if you consider an average slaughterhouse, or factory/intensive farming," Kennedy told me. "I did, actually, try to visit a slaughterhouse for the book and that was even harder than getting into the world of the corrida. I never found anywhere that would admit me". The author is now a vegetarian, although her conversion was owed to "the ecological damage done by meat farming" rather than what she saw in the ring.
One wonders why abattoir doors were closed to Kennedy and whether what happens behind them is more defensible than the corrida - the case often made by anti-bullfight carnivores (a problematic position to adopt, but a very common one). Just to imagine "a slaughterhouse with punching and kicking and fear and metal clamps and failed shots", to use Kennedy's uncompromising words, is enough to make you think hard about the morality of killing animals solely for human consumption. "It's probably as shitty as what happens in the ring," she says.
To really make up your mind about the corrida, you have to see one. But before you do, it's better if you acquaint yourself with the world of the bulls - with its "delicate and superstitious atmosphere" (as Kennedy puts it), its place in Spanish culture and the brutal intricacies of what happens on the sand. On Bullfighting is a great place to start.