Iván Fandiño preferred to let his cape do the talking. The handsome Basque bullfighter was what the Spanish call "una persona muy seria" — a solemn, grave, laconic man. He rarely opened his mouth unless something needed saying, even down to his last words. As he was being carried from the little bullring at Aire-sur-l'Adour in southern France, he told his assistants, "Hurry up, because I'm dying." The bull's horn had plunged deep into his right side, damaging his liver, kidney and lung. His heart stopped at Mont-de-Marsan hospital before his wife and baby daughter could reach him.
His death, following that of the Segovian matador Victor Barrio less than a year ago, has revived the abolition debate. Before Barrio, there had been an unprecedented run of 31 years without a matador dying in the ring.
There is a persistent myth in English-language newspapers that bullfighting is in decline. It isn't. Ticket sales peaked just before the financial crisis hit Spain, and are now reviving again. True, Catalonia voted to outlaw corridas in 2010, but more from separatist angst than from cultural or humanitarian considerations. In southern France, toreo is more popular than ever. Spanish Catalans ban bullfights to flaunt their distance from Madrid; French Catalans embrace it to flaunt their distance from Paris.
If anything, the reminder of mortality is likely to revive interest in the rite. Aficionados don't like to talk about it, but they were worried that three decades without a fatality were damaging the integrity of the corrida. Take away the possibility of human death, and you are no longer watching a tragedy; only a circus spectacle.
The death of the bull, by contrast, is not in doubt. The animal that gored Fandiño, a fierce and quirky specimen called Provechito, was put to death. Because "corrida de toros" is bizarrely translated into English as "bullfight," the implication is that it is a contest. This helps explain why the practice is so unpopular among English-speaking peoples. If it truly were a contest, it would be monstrously unfair, and we bridle as much at perceived one-sidedness as at the suffering.
When Spaniard uses the word "fight" (lucha) in the context of bulls, he is being derogatory: he means that the matador has lost all control and is struggling to stay alive. It would never occur to him that he is watching a competition. Rather, he is watching a tragedy — a tragedy that can be well or badly played, but that always ends the same way. As the poet Antonio Lorca put it: "Toreo is the liturgy of the bulls, an authentic religious drama in which, just as in the Mass, there is adoration and sacrifice of a god."
That adoration made our ancestors scrawl the image of the aurochs on the cave wall at Lascaux. It stirs the crowds today when they see the descendant of that aurochs, as finely bred as any racehorse, thundering onto the sands. They revere the aristocrat before them, and they want his death to be worthy of his life — something which, as Ernest Hemingway liked to tell everyone, can only be accomplished if the matador is prepared to maximize the danger to himself by working as closely as possible to the horn-tips.
Why has bullfighting become less deadly? Partly because of advances in medicine. Outside the vast, Moorish-style ring in Madrid is a statue paid for through a public appeal by toreros themselves. It is not of a bullfighter, but of a Scottish biologist: Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. Partly, too, because of the profusion of taurine schools, where young men learn the craft from an early age. The leading matadors, who effectively get to dictate which bloodlines they appear with, naturally want breeds that charge simply and straightforwardly, allowing for maximum artistry. There is still a demand for "difficult" bloodlines, though, especially in France, and Fandiño specialized in these more dangerous bulls.
Will the fiesta be banned? I suspect that, in time, the breeding of animals for human use generally will cease. Our meat will be produced in laboratories, vast tracts of pastureland will be returned to nature and slaughterhouses, like bullrings, will close.
Until that moment, though, consider this. The fighting bull is not separated from his mother at birth, nor castrated, nor are his horns or tail docked. He is not penned up, nor fed on pellets. Rather, he spends five years living in a state of nature without human contact. He then dies savagely but not protractedly: by law, the matador must complete his work within fifteen minutes. If I had to choose between that life and the life of the animal that becomes your steak — let alone your veal — I wouldn't hesitate.