Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy’s On Bullfighting sets out to capture the sport’s macho tradition and suicidal obsessions by interlacing history, memoir, and travel narrative. It’s hard to write a book on bullfighting without simply penning a corollary to Hemingway’s nonfiction masterpiece Death in the Afternoon, but Kennedy ably removes herself from Papa’s shadow with a broad tonal range and anecdotal meanderings. The book travels from a window ledge in Glasgow to a corrida in Granada and back with barely an apology for their generic unclassifiability. Her instinct toward the symbolic and tangential constantly grounds her approach in evocative memories and meditations—a local farmer delivering a stillborn calf becomes an entry point to meditating on death; the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur gives way to the tactile memory of dissecting cows’ eyes in first-year physics.
More than once we are reminded that the writing of On Bullfighting was a self-directed rescue mission from suicide, from the failure to write (anything), from a crippling pain brought on by an as-yet-undiagnosed displaced disc high in the author’s spine. We are also reminded that matador translates, roughly, to “killer”—as does suicide. These ruminations sometimes teeter on the edge of acceptability—Kennedy compares her bouts of depression, spent in her toasty flat, to Lorca’s return home to a government that will surely exterminate him. Her correlation between notions of romantic suicide and a torero’s experience in the ring—on the brink of actual, gory death—rings false. But there is enough real and noble suffering depicted in this book to redeem any fleeting bathos, particularly in its elegant and decidedly unmaudlin sketches of bullfighting’s renowned toreros. The best parts are analytical rather than diaristic; Kennedy possesses the gift (rare in a still-youngish author) to write an honest essay—not too smugly clever, not too researched-within-an-inch-of-its-life to admit a human voice.
The book closes with Kennedy confronting her old writing desk, fresh manuscript in hand but still faced with the uncertain possibility of redemption. Despite the torero’s triumphant return with the bull’s ear, the battle won, the question of salvation remains for the author, the torero, and the world. Kennedy attempts to save her own life by finding sense and purpose in a matador’s mad pursuit, of which every moment is an invitation to the ultimate end. One finishes the book hoping that it has done its job.