San fermin party in Spain. | JP Urdiroz - sb - EFE - EFE


The Spanish Civil War, it has been said, was a conflict based on ideas rather than on territory. It was these ideas and the ideologies that attracted an intellectual class. While there were those from the right-wing, it was the left-wing which dominated, and amongst their number was Ernest Hemingway.

For Whom The Bell Tolls’, published eighty years ago, was Hemingway’s great Civil War novel. Hemingway had come to Spain as a journalist to cover the war, but he was already very familiar with the country, having first visited in the early 1920s at a time when he was based in Paris and could count Gertrude Stein among his acquaintances. Stein presumably never offered Hemingway the advice she did to Robert Graves about Mallorca, but she may well have been instrumental in kindling his interest in Spain.

In 1923, Hemingway went to Pamplona for the San Fermín fiesta. He had by then become acquainted with bullfighting, and the bull run of Pamplona served to increase his fascination. The Sun Also Rises was his novel about American and British expatriates who went to Pamplona from Paris to witness the bull run and bullfights.

Six years later, 1932, his non-fiction workDeath in the Afternoon was published. This was Hemingway’s tribute to bullfighting. He was an aficionado, who was to observe: “It would be pleasant of course for those who like it (bullfighting), if those who do not would not feel that they had to go to war against it or give money to try to suppress it, since it offends them or does not please them. But that is too much to expect, and anything capable of arousing passion in its favor will surely raise as much passion against it.”

Hemingway, a Republican sympathiser, a man of the left but also a man of the bullring. Was there not a contradiction here? Is it not the left who have voiced their opposition to bullfighting?

In 1936, just two months before his assassination at the hands of Nationalists, the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca said in an interview that “bullfighting is probably the greatest poetic and vital richness of Spain”. “The bullfighting festival is the most cultured in the world today. It is the pure drama for which the Spaniard sheds his greatest tears and temper.” The bullring “is the only place where you go with the security of seeing death surrounded by the most dazzling beauty”.

It has been maintained that Lorca was apolitical and that his assassination owed at least something to his homosexuality. But while he was apparently on friendly terms with figures from the Falange, he espoused socialist views. Yet there he was, offering a eulogy to bullfighting, while from the art world there was Pablo Picasso, who produced ‘The Dream and Lie of Franco’ in 1937 and joined the French Communist Party. He had a passion for bullfighting, which he portrayed in several works.

These personalities are pertinent to what has become something of a row about left-wing support for bullfighting. It has been brought into the spotlight by a member of PSOE from the Basque Country, Eneko Andueza, whose book,Los toros, desde la izquierda, has created more discussion than it might have done because it has a foreword from a far more prominent member of PSOE - the first deputy prime minister, Carmen Calvo.

The deputy PM has never hidden her support for bullfighting, and in the book she says that “bullfighting has been part of the tradition of the left, in the same way that it has become part of the tradition of the right, because it is our culture”. She goes on: “There have been and are aficionados from the left and from the right; bullfighters from the left and the right. There were aficionados and bullfighters before ‘the left’ and ‘the right’ existed.”

Andueza, who has written two previous books about bullfighting, argues that “it is natural to combine an unconditional defence of bullfighting and a defence and practice of the values of the left”. “We make the mistake of politically undercapitalising bullfighting when we say that it is neither left nor right. I believe that the greatness of the fiesta is that it is as much of the right as it is of the left. In this respect, I have had to show that the fiesta has a clear link with the values of the left.”

Lorca and Picasso have been cited in this defence; Hemingway not, because he wasn’t Spanish. Yes, they were of a time, but on account of their differing streaks of artistic genius, they perceived bullfighting in almost spiritual terms and captured the essence of something which, while so many of us abhor bullfighting and cannot understand why it hasn’t been banned completely, is rooted in the Spanish psyche (or at least the psyche of some Spaniards) and is - regardless of the generally accepted impression of the right being pro and the left being anti - far less simplistic than this.