On Bullfighting, by A.L. Kennedy. Anchor, $11.
In Spain, aguantar refers to the ability to maintain grace under fire, the ability to deal with difficult situations without breaking down. It's a required quality in matadors. Writers, unfortunately, face no such requirement.
In On Bullfighting, which was released in England in 1999 to glowing reviews and appears in the U.S. for the first time now, author A.L. Kennedy displays a shameful lack of aguantar. A fine writer and a good reporter, Kennedy can't resist marring her narrative with frequent, elaborate references to her own physical and emotional problems.
On Bullfighting is the first bullfight book for women, a book even Oprah could love.
The narrative opens with Kennedy--blocked, bored, depressed, and infirm--getting ready to take a dive from her apartment window. Instead, to "see if she can still write," she takes an assignment to cover bullfighting in Spain. On assignment, she proves herself a fine reporter. When she's on subject--bullfighting, that is--she's colorful and fair-minded, and her occasional technical inaccuracies will offend only sensitive afficcionados like me.
But Kennedy can't resist repeatedly pulling us back to her discomforts--her inability to sleep, her sore neck, her drugged disorientation, her fatigue, her shyness, her problems with a foreign language. More than once, she comments that her problems are nothing special, that they're of no interest to her readers. Then she more than once launches into extended discussions of the problems she said herself readers don't care about. Over and over, deliciously exciting writing is ruined by a chaser of misery:
Take it for granted that Seville in the feria is a sun-aching, glorious place and that even the rather dismal airport has its clusters of girls in flamenco dresses and outbursts of laughter. Also that the old town is splendid with narrow, Moorish streets and photogenic squares, horse-drawn carriages, leather goods, peculiarly annoying ceramics and a general air of tapas-nibbling bonhomie and sleek content ... Take it for granted that lifting and traveling still hurt my neck, that nothing much is different or even interesting with me.
If there's nothing "different or even interesting," why keep reminding us of your discomfort?
At one point early on, Kennedy shares her thoughts on the Roman Colosseum, which she visited long before her bullfight assignment. Reasonably, she compares the corrida and the gladiatorial spectacles presented in Rome; sadly, she does this while focusing largely on her own remembered physical discomforts. While reflecting on the Colosseum passage, I thought about how much On Bullfighting is like Gladiator, the film: Both start with sometimes silly, stereotypical male subject matter (larded with shoddy effects and a shamefully sloppy attention to detail), and gussy it up. In both cases, you come up with the same results--overrated dreck.
Then again, us aficionados are a desperate, lonely lot. When it comes to books on bullfighting, we'll take what we can get. If Kennedy's whimpering earns On Bullfighting a wider audience, it will have served some good.
Reading On Bullfighting was like being on a blind date with a beautiful whiner: Despite the early warnings, I found myself patiently putting up with the sniveling, hoping for some sort of payoff. Kennedy's strong descriptive talents and laudable fair-mindedness paid well, but they weren't enough; in the end, no amount of beauty could make up for the bitching and moaning. A second date? No thanks.