I once drove past a herd of bulls in Cuenca and rolled up the window, that being the only extra protection available at the time. The idea then of standing in front of one as it charges, intent on slicing you off a third leg, is a pretty difficult concept to assimilate for me. It was therefore quite interesting to meet slight, soft-spoken Victor Manuel, who does this for a living, being not only one of Valencia’s top bullfighters, but also a teacher of prospective performers of Spain’s national sport.
Victor Manuel was born in Burjassot and acquired his interest in bullfighting by watching the bullfights on TV. One day when he was 13, a friend asked him to go into Valencia to see the Fallas. He refused at first because there was a bullfight on TV. His friend pointed out that the bullfight was in Valencia and that they could sneak in, which is what they did, and since then he hasn’t looked back, and neither have the police caught up with him.
His two brothers, Luis and Raul, are also bullfighters, and ‘tradition’ is an important word to him and was repeated several times during our conversation. He pointed out however that, although a believer, (when things are going well he says that he feels ‘accompanied’), he consciously avoids the superstitions that are rife in this world where men, and increasingly women, face death and maiming so that the rest of us can be entertained; the nearest thing to Roman gladiators remaining in the 21st century.
Victor Manuel has a dog, and describes himself as an animal lover; in fact he says he’d like to join an animal protection group, but they won’t have him.
As regards his profession, he points out that the bull as we know it is an animal created by man, that only exists in countries where bullfighting takes place, and that the fate of young bulls who are not selected for this sport, is to end up in the BBQ at the tender age of 9 months.
Perhaps it’s true then that, as Oscar Wilde said, “each man kills the thing he loves”, for when he speaks of bulls it is with respect. As he says, it is the only animal that would charge a train head on, being both noble and “bravo”, which is a bit more than just ‘brave’.
As his latest appointment with the train jouster was only 20 days away, I asked him how he felt in the days leading up to a “corrida”. Lots of sensations, physical fear, nervousness about whether he will perform well, and pride, that he will be facing this noble beast. He described bullfighting as a drug, one that he can’t (for the moment) live without, but recognised that as bullfighters get older, the fear increases along with awareness of the risks that younger “toreros” impetuously ignore.
As for the moment of killing, he describes it as a kind of ecstasy, if it is a good, clean kill; although the kill is not the best moment.
The best moment is the partnership between this fierce beast and the bullfighter; a moment of ‘rhythm’, ‘beauty’ an ‘aesthetic moment’, like ballet.
Although he’s never danced in a ballet, he recently participated in an opera. When the Wrocaw Ballet of Poland decided to put on a super production of Bizet’s Carmen in a basketball stadium, they contracted Victor Manuel to show his skills against ‘bulls’ on motorbikes during six performances.
It was this experience that made him appreciate his little knowledge of English, as it was the only language with which he could communicate with a cast of Italians, Czechs, Russians and of course Poles.
When I asked about injuries, Victor Manuel shrugged off the question saying that he’d been lucky and suffered “nothing much”. Nothing much actually consists of having teeth broken, ‘a few’ fractures and a horn in the anus. (No longer will I whine about broken fingernails and shampoo in my eyes!) He also commented as an aside, having seen friends die in the ring; a topic I didn’t pursue.
He spends weekends and holidays at the family villa in Llíria indulging his love of the countryside and playing his guitar with his friends, and was interested to know about the growing number of British residents there and even expressed interest in visiting the Sunday morning car boot sale, having, as he said, a love of flea markets.
The last 4 winters had been spent in South America, especially Colombia, and since 1998 he has been one of the three teachers at the Bullfighting School run by Valencia Provincial Government, where those who are interested can learn to be bullfighters for free up until 18 years of age.
The school at present has about 60 students, 4 of whom are girls. The teachers try to teach, apart from the technical skills, “discipline, self-control, commitment and honourable behaviour with rancour”.
Victor Manuel loves animals and the countryside but doesn’t like hunting, although he respects those who do so legally and without unnecessary cruelty, particularly if, as in the case of British foxhunting, there is a tradition involved, whatever Oscar Wilde may have to say about “the unspeakable pursuing the inedible”.