The king of the ring returns, but can he save bullfighting?
José Tomás is the most charismatic and controversial figure in bullfighting and his announced return to action after injury is big news for aficionados. But Spain's corrida tradition is facing some obstacles that even Tomás might struggle to overcome.
By Guy Hedgecoe
For some, he epitomizes the courage and dignity of the great matadors. For others, he is an artless brute, whose thirst for blood helps keep an absurd tradition alive. José Tomás divides opinion with the same drama with which he kills bulls. His skill and apparently reckless willingness to put his own life on the line make him the most talked-about torero in the world.
Tomás has been away from bullfighting for over a year. He was severely gored in the leg at Aguascalientes, Mexico, in April of last year and as he was carried to the infirmary, leaving a trail of blood in his wake, many feared for his life. After a forced layoff, Tomás will return to the ring this summer, to the delight of bullfighting’s aficionados, impresarios and his own apoderado, or representative, Salvador Boix.
“These have been difficult, long months of hard work by the bullfighter, and of faith,” Boix told the press in May as he announced Tomás’s July 23 comeback in Valencia. “And this is a very happy day.”
It was a particularly happy day for those who have watched in dismay as corridas have lost popularity, been hurt by the economic crisis and most recently, been banned altogether in Catalonia from January 2012.
For Bill Lyon, an American journalist and bullfighting expert who has been in Spain since 1962, Tomás is a unique presence.
“He has tremendous personality in the ring, he’s almost mystical, sometimes you get the feeling he’s going into a trance right in front of the bull,” he says.
That mystical aura in the ring, and his media-shy persona out of it, have amplified his appeal. A series of pictures of Tomás taken by German photographer Anya Bartels-Suermondt were recently on show at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid. Mexican singer José María Napoleón wrote a song for the bullfighter. And books with titles such as Torero de silencio and Torero de leyenda, have already been published about the 35-year-old.
This adoration of Tomás is also fuelled by his apparent disregard for his own safety. He allows the bull to pass extremely close to his body, a trait that makes for spectacular viewing but also leads to frequent gorings. During the latter stages of faenas, Tomás is often caked in blood – that of the bull and his own.
But even among fans, Tomás is a divisive figure. Some of bullfighting’s more discerning observers find him crude.
“I don’t like the man at all,” one elderly lady told Iberosphere before going into Las Ventas. “I think he’s trying to be killed by the bull. He likes to be in front of the bull and to be killed – not like the rest of the toreros.”
Doubting the cult of Tomás
El País’s acerbic bullfighting critic, Antonio Lorca, has been a dogged non-believer when it comes to the cult of Tomás. This is partly due to his technique in the bullring, but also because of his decisions about where and when to appear, which Lorca sees as often self-serving.
“He’s followed by a legion of fans who think that they see in him a bullfighting god, a revolutionary, the alpha and omega of this controversial spectacle,” Lorca wrote in 2009 after Tomás was received like a conquering hero in Barcelona’s La Monumental bullring. “They didn’t see, or they didn’t want to see, his weaknesses and they crowned him king of bullfighting.”
But one thing everyone is agreed on – Tomás fanatics, Tomás critics and even anti-bullfighting activists – is that his return to action is significant.
“José Tomás is very important for bullfighting because he’s galvanised huge interest not only among aficionados, but also people who don’t have that much interest in bullfighting,” says Lyon.
For Alessandro Zara, of animal rights group Equanimal, Tomás embodies the bloodlust of those who go to the bullring on a Sunday afternoon: “Almost everything in his clothes and in his face becomes stained with blood – the blood of the bull – and people like him very much. He shows that people who like bullfighting like blood.”
Catalonia’s political ban
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Tomás, from Galapagar near Madrid, sees Barcelona as a spiritual home. His defiant nature responds to the opposition the fiesta has frequently faced in Catalonia and in six months’ time, bullfighting will be illegal there. This is due to a politically steeped decision by the Catalan regional assembly, many of whose nationalist representatives saw in this issue an opportunity to further distance themselves from Madrid by banning the most traditionally “Castilian” spectacle of all. By contrast, their refusal to ban the Catalan correbous – in which bulls are also tormented but not killed – appeared to undermine any claims of defending animal rights.
Barcelona’s season-ending and last-ever cycle of bullfights in September is going to be a highly-charged, emotional affair, quite possibly with Tomás at the top of the bill. But when the last slaughtered bull is dragged out of La Monumental, there will be other battles for Tomás and bullfighting’s hardcore faithful to fight, and they won’t necessarily be legal challenges from politicians or animal rights groups.
“In the early part of the 20th century, the only real entertainment in Spain was the theatre and bullfighting. There wasn’t football, television or movies, people didn’t have cars,” says Lyon. “Now, bullfighting’s just one more form of urban entertainment.”
A wander past Las Ventas during the recent San Isidro bullfighting festival underlined the fact that few people are interested now in this spectacle, other than tourists and pensioners. The world of los toros might manage to survive a little longer, especially with José Tomás as its leading light. But even this most driven and uncompromising of characters cannot halt its decline.
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Published: Jun 22 2011
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=3181
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Tags: bullfighter, bullfighting, bullfighting ban, Catalan bullfighting, jose tomas, spain bullfighting, torero, toros