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shadow of a bull

9 august 2014

Few possible topics and treatments in Newbery Medal winners could have dated less well in 50 years than those of Shadow of a Bull. In Maia Wojciechowska's novel, bullfighting is a admirable pursuit. Even though our hero Manolo Olivar decides to reject his father's lead and avoid becoming a bullfighter, he appreciates the bravery and skill needed to follow the profession. It's simply not his vocation.

Manolo's afición is for healing, and he ultimately realizes that it's braver to be true to yourself than to torment and kill animals. Or no: he realizes that it's braver to be true to yourself than to give in to peer pressure, which is a valuable lesson for sure. But he continues to look on tormenting and killing animals as a noble endeavor per se, one fused with his culture and even the existential well-being of his compatriots. He promotes the career of his friend Juan García, who does have what it takes to become a great bullfighter. In other words, Manolo's abnegation of bullfighting glory is not exactly informed by eco-criticism.

The most famous children's book about bullfighting is The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (illustrated by Robert Lawson), which is of course about preferring not to fight at all. And one can certainly see Ferdinand's influence in Shadow of a Bull, in which the protagonist similarly abjures bullfighting. Although even at that, Manolo gets to fight, if not kill, his bull. He shows that he's OK at the sport: if this were baseball, Manolo's lone bullfight would be a 1-for-4 day with a sacrifice bunt. Not bad for a beginner, and enough to prove that Manolo is a man, and that his denial of his legacy is motivated by passion for something else, not incompetence in the ring.

Wojciechowska pulls no punches about the suffering that the fight inflicts on men and bulls alike (see pp. 34-35, where the death of a bull is described, early on in the novel, in gruesome detail). But she never questions the legitimacy of bullfighting itself. It's violent business, but someone has to do it, in order to undergird the ritual identity of the Spanish people.

"In Spain," you see, Wojciechowska explains,

… people have found a way of cheating death. They summon it to appear in the afternoon in the bull ring, and they make it face a man. Death—a fighting bull with horns as weapons— is killed by a bullfighter. And the people are there watching death being cheated of its right. (6)
One senses an homage to the late Ernest Hemingway in the specification of death and afternoon in those sentences, and is probably correct. But Wojciechowska doesn't invoke his authority; she independently establishes the bullfight as a noble activity. We are led through a predictable litany of excuses for torture: "There is no sight more beautiful" than the fighting bull (24), and no deed more honorable than killing beauty cleanly. This begins to sound more Oscar Wilde than Ernest Hemingway: each man kills the thing he loves.

And the bull, after all, appreciates such death. "That's how he'd choose his death if he had a chance to choose," says one of Manolo's aficionado mentors. "In hot blood and not in the miserable slaughterhouse where he can't fight back" (27). You'd almost think the bull was a great predator and not a pasture creature by nature. In fact herbivore behavior is scorned in Wojciechowska's glossary, when she defines the term querencia:

Bulls which are not particularly brave always cho[o]se a spot inside the bull ring to which they return or sometimes do not want to leave at all. (149)
You figure? But that's the cowardly bull. The brave one is a manhandler and often a mankiller. And this monster becomes the totem creature of a nation that has found no other way to get past the ennui of existence. Spaniards are coded in Shadow of a Bull as not like us: more savage, more elemental, less loaded with minor cares and more prey to the big ones. Wilder than suburban Americans, but freer, and better off. And determined to dance till dawn through it all:
They make war against sadness with songs and dances, with laughter, and with joy at just being alive. That joy erupts like a volcano once a year during the three-day fiesta. (58)
Pity the poor American child reader. He can dance to his transistor radio, perhaps, but he has no animals to kill.

Wojciechowska, Maia. Shadow of a Bull. 1964. New York: Aladdin [Simon & Schuster], 2007.