by Victoria Aitken
The social networking world is an odd one – you see your friends less, but know more about them - and real catching up has been replaced with the dubious substitute of half a dozen status updates on your newsfeed each day. But the upside is the strange tide of news about semi-strangers that drifts across your screen. Alexander Fiske-Harrison is one of those.
Xander, as he is known, a writer and actor, kept popping up on my screen with pictures of him doing one of the strangest and most controversial pastimes left in the western world – bullfighting.
Then Fiske-Harrison’s book, Into the Arena, came out, and unexpectedly enthusiastic reviews from the British press rolled in - “compelling,” “lyrical,” “thrilling,” “engrossing,” “informed,” “morally searching,” “never loses his moral qualms” - from titles like the London Times, Financial Times and the Mail on Sunday. So I read the book and came to understand a little more about the horrors - and the potential beauties - of this quintessentially Spanish pastime.
Into The Arena vividly paints a picture of the bullfight as a three-act spectacle honed over the centuries into something resembling a ritual sacrifice. Various parts are open to improvisation, not least because the half-ton-plus fighting bull does not know the script but also never sees a man on the ground in his five years running wild on the ranch. As Fiske-Harrison points out, the cruelty of it, unlike that of the slaughterhouse, has the sole virtue of being completely in the open.According to Fiske-Harrison’s research, one in four matadors die in the ring, the majority at the very last moment when he stops luring the bull into a charge with the cape and instead charges the bull himself. Spaniards pay good money every year – sometimes thousands of dollars – to watch this. More astonishing still are the statistics taken from the Spanish Ministry of the Interior. There were more fights in 2008 than ever before in Spanish history - 1,345 to be precise.
The book is extremely well researched, from biology to philosophy, from economics to sociology, all of which Fiske-Harrison has majored in at some time or other. What saves the book is the novelist’s writing style - the information drifts into the reader amidst the sometimes lyrical, sometimes brutally spare prose. This, and the fact that, as a Method actor, Fiske-Harrison felt that he could not write the book without having fought a bull himself, provides the terrifying but saddening and thoughtful conclusion.
So, it was armed with these various conundrums – how such an ancient and brutal pastime is so popular in modern Spain, and how someone like Fiske-Harrison could bear to spend time in a world so steeped in blood and danger - that I went to meet him.
How on earth did you get into bullfighting?
There was a piece in the famously pro-animal Daily Mail attacking bullfighting, and I saw a deep flaw in their argument. Everything that they said was wrong; in fact, the word they used “evil” about the corrida de toros – as it should be called – can also be said about eating meat. And yet, the vast majority of people think there is nothing morally wrong with that. What is more, one thing that is wrong with the industry that supplies our habit of eating meat – which is clearly not nutritionally necessary – is that [animal] welfare in factory farms is terrible and the environmental damage is worse. Fighting bulls, I knew from Spanish friends, were bred in wild conditions on ranches kept in the same condition as nature reserves. If you banned it, animal welfare would get worse – five-year life spans in the wilderness would become 18 months in the corral; 20 minutes in the ring in punishing combat conditions would become hours in terror in the slaughterhouse – and the environment would get worse with it.
That’s a nice justification, but what was the origin of your knowledge?
I was taken to my first fight by my parents in 2000. They’d seen the great fighters of the 1960s like El Cordobes, but had no love of it; to them it was just ‘Spain,’ and they thought it would be arrogant to visit Spain without getting to know it a little. I was astonishingly lucky and my first fight was “good” – the dominant features were the technique and courage of the matador, not the blood and suffering of the bull – and then my second was the reverse. I realised it was morally-borderline and that was interesting. In theatre, in art in general, there are certain things you look for, and the morally-borderline is one: Shakespeare, Dostoievski, they all walk the line. It was later that I realised that almost all of the arguments lined up against it are either answerable or false. That was when I decided to write my book.
Why do you say almost all?
You will always have to ask questions about why people want to watch an animal injured and then killed. We like to watch death – be it false in Elizabethan drama or Hollywood film, or real, like the nature documentaries that the BBC makes so well – but it takes real darkness to directly fund it via a box-office. However, if welfare is equal or better, let’s be honest with ourselves.Okay, but how did you end up getting into the arena, as your title says? It’s one thing to think something’s justifiable; it’s another to risk your life in the pursuit of research for it.
Hmmm, that’s always the killer question for me, as I don’t have an answer. I don't know. I remember that my literary agent liked the idea of me writing a book because my background at university fit the topic, biology at Oxford for the animal behaviour, philosophy post-grad at London for the ethics, but the real thing was that I might be able to bring my knowledge of theatre to bring out the drama. I studied acting at Stella Adler in New York when Marlon Brando was the chairman, and he always had the firm belief from his “Method Acting” technique that in order to make art about something, first you had to live it. Then, as I got to know the major matadors, they all asked me, as a young man who is relatively fit, healthy, whatever... why don’t you get in the ring? Then it became clear that this was something I could do... wasn’t bad at... and then came the question of la hora de verdad, ‘the moment of truth.’
What is the moment of truth?
The bullfight is not a fight, that’s a term in the English language that came from our obscene medieval hobby of setting dogs on a bull – bulldogs – and seeing how many it took to kill it. As I describe early on in the book, the bullfight grew out of knightly jousting, but the nobleman on the horse became less important and his former servant on the ground who finished off the bull – the matador, or ‘killer’ – became the dominant figure and did so by getting the bull to pass him in more and more impressive ways before finishing it off with the sword.
At first, the people were most impressed by the man who could bring the bull closest, but like with any activity, the practitioners got better. So, it ceased to be even the illusion of a contest, and it became devoted to the matador’s elegance, with the danger as background music to add drama. However, the one moment that could not be changed was the kill, when the matador had to take the route that required the most courage, charging the bull with the sword straight at the horns so that the point enters the body cavity aiming for the aortic artery, before he deviates to the side out of the way of the rising horn tips. That is the moment of truth, and the moment when the majority of the 52 major matadors who have died in the ring did so, out of 325 major matadors who have fought in the past 300 years.
Speaking of courage, your photos from the running of the bulls in Pamplona this year, after the book had come out, seem extremely dangerous.
I ran because it’s hard to let go of a thing like the bulls. It was an amazing two years I had in their world – with the animals, and the men who breed them and the men who kill them, even though they love them – and a part of me wanted to be close to all of that once more. There aren’t many things like this left. As the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca put it, “Bullfighting is the last serious thing left in the world today.” He knew what he was talking about.
About the author:
Victoria Aitken has been published in The Sunday Times, Style Magazine, The Daily Mail, Tatler, The Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian. She was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, educated in Germany, Switzerland, and Washington, D.C, where she earned a B.A. in international relations from Georgetown University.