Sunday, October 19, 2008

Shadow of a Bull

I tried to like this book. But Shadow of a Bull depicts a way of life that is utterly foreign to me. It's a life where bullfighting is an all-consuming art, and a fantastically popular sport, and the bullfighters who dance with (and sometimes conquer) death are the rock stars of their day:
"In Spain, however, 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 (p. 7)."
Manolo, the 9 to 12 year old protagonist (the son of a famous bullfighter who was killed in the ring when Manolo was only 4 years old) is a sympathetic character. He fears that he is a coward, and the fact that the whole village expects him to follow in his famous father's footsteps makes matters worse.

Unfortunately, I was bored by most of Manolo's story, and then revolted by the details of bullfighting. I did rather grudgingly admire the various matadors' courage and grace, and complexity and history of the corrida. But I really couldn't enjoy Manolo's years of work and his self-discoveries, no matter how skillfully Wojciechowska described the secrets of the bullring and the boys that aspire to be bullfighters, risking their lives just for a chance to train. I did applaud Manolo's growth towards self-determination, which was the basic moral of the story:
"A man's life is many things. Before he becomes a man, he has many choices: to do the right thing, or to do the wrong thing; to please himself, or to please others; to be true to his own self, or untrue to it" (p. 145).
And that's another thing. Shadow of a Bull is all about boys, and the responsibility of becoming a man. An honorable man. The only female character in the book is Manolo's mother, and she's pretty much a nonentity until one minor passage near the end of the story. I don't think a book about such an exclusively male activity (or maybe some women do it today? I have no idea) is going to appeal to many girls. There are plenty of "boy books" that do appeal to girls, but I just don't think that this is one of them.

It didn't help that I didn't care for the illustrations by Alvin Smith, which seemed to embody all that I didn't like about 60's style partially abstract drawings.

Also, I was about a third of the way through the book before I discovered the "Glossary of Bullfighting Terms" at the back, which made it a little easier to check on the terms like veronica, tienta, and muleta, which are crucial to the story (and mostly explained in context, but it's easy to get the different capes and moves and equipment mixed up).

I did end up wondering how integral bullfighting is to Spanish culture today, or whether bullfighting is just a shadow of its past. (But I didn't care enough to research it myself, which should tell you something else about how I felt about the book). Let me know in the comments if you know anything about bullfighting today.

1 comment:

Nicola said...

I loved this book when I read it about ten years ago. And I am a girl. Though I think there is nothing wrong with "boy" books. There certainly are plenty of books aimed at girls, boys need their own books too.

Funny, you mentioned this but just last night we watchd on one of those news magazine shows 20/20 or 60 minutes and they featured a piece called Blood Brothers about two bullfighting brothers, one who had been seriously injured recently and yet they continue to keep on. They talked about the sport with a lot of pride and honour. Though you'd never get me to go see a bull fight!