Arts Books

Death in the Afternoon

matador in arena

Death in the Afternoon was written by Ernest Hemingway.  It is non-fiction book that was published on September 23, 1932 by Charles Scribner’s Sons.  It follows A Farewell to Arms (1929) and shares a common subject matter with another novel.  The story explores the history and traditions of Spanish bullfighting.  A critique on the nature of courage and fear is interwoven between the guide book.  Ten thousand copies of Death in the Afternoon were released during its first printing.

Hemingway fell in love with bullfighting in 1923 during a visit to Spain.  He ate at the same restaurants as the matadors.  He drank at their bars and rested in their hotels.  He followed them from city to city and watched them perfect their craft, while he mastered his own.  Ernest made the trip an annual re-occurrence.  The Sun Also Rises was completed three years later. 

Death in the Afternoon was created to celebrate the ethos of the Spanish bullfight and provide a practical elucidation for American readers.  The gore overshadowed the beauty of the sport in the West.  Ernest wanted to change the perception and unclog the stereotype.  His admiration and intensity fill the pages with his own experiences and outlook on life.  An autobiographical element floats above the diction.  The turning of pages adds gravity until the genre is undecipherable.

A Matador – Photo Credit: ustung

First Encounters

The beginning narrates Hemingway’s first experience with bullfighting.  Gertrude Stein provided the stimulus for the journey.  His original instinct was that the killing of the horses would be too horrific.  The benefits to his writing overruled the lurid tauromachy.  Capturing the emotion produced from action onto paper was the objective.  He goes to Spain.  The bullfights begin.  They are intricate and compelling.  He becomes a student.

Dissertation and intimate observation questions the virtue of bullfighting.  Ernest separates the humans who psychologically resonate with the animals and the ones who side with people into two groups.  The act of killing itself creates a strong emotion within the first group.  The poor performance from a matador pollutes the other.  The aesthetics of the fight grow on the viewer.  A sensitivity is developed and likened to a palate tasting wine.

Death in the Afternoon continues on with the intricacies of bullfighting.  Several long anecdotes are weaved alongside.  The voice of the persona Papa Hemingway is refined over years of matador surveillance.  Sometimes he is more of an aggressor than a guide.  The story was written in his youth.  The authors Aldous Huxley, Jean Cocteau, William Faulkner and André Gide are examined in an unfavorable light.  The critique was condemned early in the book’s release.

matador in arena
A bull and matador fighting – Photo Credit: Leeroy

Deeper Meaning

The book returns to the mission and examines the complicated techniques and equipment used in bullfighting.  The characteristics and habits of the bulls bred for fighting are revealed.  A sequence of appendixes contains over sixty pages of black and white photographs of matadors and their methods, bulls and post event injuries.  Countless bullfighting terms and local sayings are defined in another.  Beautiful and meticulous captions explain the importance of each image.  Some notebook entries saturate the data.  The reader is left to decide their value.

The main theme is death and Hemingway’s attraction to it.  The decadence of modern fights is compared to the transparency of the old clashes.  The matador uses a series of tricks and allusions to fool the audience into believing they are closer to the bull than actually they are.  The appearance of death is a suggestion.  The emotions created by the viewer are false.  There is no true danger.  Ernest believes it is not a sport because the fight is unequal.  It is something greater.

The odds of a matador perishing are slim.  The true skill allows him to increase his proximity to death at his leisure.  The valve of peril is turned to the perfect degree.  Deliberate stunts outside of a matador’s capability are a dishonor.  Working within their own limits to navigate the chaos is what validates the art form.  Every conflict is different.  The flirtation with destruction is the draw.

Bullfight – Photo Credit: Tomas Castelazo

The matadors of the past and present are evaluated.  One was an American from Brooklyn in the 1930’s.  Ringside gore and sinew are covered in graphic lengths.  The traumatic reporting extends to the hospitals and the subsequential operations.  The book acts as a guide to bullfighting on the surface.  An intimate look into the writer’s mind runs below.  Hemingway shows the world who he is and what he loves.  The love is matched with hate.  The cycle repeats.  Death in the Afternoon ends.

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water”

– Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
death in the afternoon
Death in the Afternoon book – Photo Credit: Provenance Online Project

2 comments on “Death in the Afternoon

  1. Achuth

    Great review of the book, wants me go read it right away, thanks.

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