By Paul McGranaghan

Published 5/30/2014


There is a theory that the exclamation ¡Olé! is a vestige of Moorish Spain. In the days when Andalucía was Al-Andalus and the viziers of the Al-Hambra would take their siesta in the Generalife, there was a popular belief that a person exhibiting superhuman perfection in the execution of their art was in thrall to the Almighty, or Allah. Thus whenever a musician, say, or a dancer appeared to be possessed with the spirit of flawless, stirring genius, onlookers would hark that the Almighty was present. ‘Allah! Allah!’ they would cry. And, so the theory goes, with time ‘Allah’ transformed into ‘¡Olé!

Whether or not this is true, I cannot say. I can say, however, that I understand how persuasive this argument can be when watching Esther Aranda dance in the Peña de Los Cernicalos in Jerez de la Frontera. Flamenco, as all Jerezanos know, is not a product of the barrios of Sevilla, but was born here in the barrio of San Miguel amongst the Gitanos. Los Cernicalos is the oldest Peña in Jerez and can thus claim to be the very font of all Flamenco. Despite this proud boast it is not an ostentatious place, but then it has no need of ornamentation. After all, who is inspecting the décor when Esther Aranda takes to the stage?

The audience is a mixture of devotees in their Sunday best, a German tour party and ‘Taka’, the Japanese Flamenco guitarist who has performed here. He will not perform tonight. Tonight ‘Rubichi’ will play, and he will play with such fervor and dexterity to make his playing sound like the work of six. And as he plays he will be accompanied by palmas, the rhythmic hand-claps that mimic a quickening pulse.

It’s sympathetic magic, of course. The faster he plays and the faster the palmasarrive, the quicker the pulse becomes. And then the music is joined by the commanding stamp of the dancers’ heels. Noemi Dominguez dances first; angry, aggressive, posing and haughty she drums her heels and rolls her hands as though telling someone to hurry up. Her dance is so fervid that it feels as though it’s motivated by hatred, and when she finishes her nostrils flare, her eyes glare, and her shoulders are heaving.

Esther Aranda follows her. She too is haughty. She too is commanding. She hitches her caramel dress and beats a staccato as she dances. With knowing humour, she seems to flirt with the crowd. Yet there comes a point in her dance when she moves from mimicking a stroppy barmaid, dusting her hands of an unworthy suitor, to erupting into a flaming orchid. It is the work of a judicious few steps.

The tourists just sit there, nursing their awkward sherries. The Jerezanos show no such restraint. ¡Olé! they shout, ¡Olé! And Esther Aranda stamps her feet and throws both hands out and up, her chin tilted, a proud smile on her lips, and I’m in love.

 

The morning after and the pure azure sky glows above avenues of jacarandas. In bloom, and having shed their leaves, their violet flowers look like manes of purple foliage. Emblazoned against the bright dun walls of the Alcázar they saturate the eye. Benches between their trunks have gathered a cross-section of Jerez to them. Here are two old people, bookending lives in which the Second Republic has a chapter, as does Franco, as does Spain’s return to modernity. Here are scrawny, sun-burnt borrachos passing around the botellón: the cheap one-litre bottles of supermarket beer that keeps them stupefied. Here are gaggles of students in generic euro-fashion. They could be German or Italian or French, until they get within earshot, until you see how they nurse one another through their friendships.

Above them all, the Alcázar lords it on the summit of the hill that coasts down past Gonzalez-Byass and rolls out through the brown swells of the Andalucían countryside. It’s Moorish; or it was. Built by the Almoshads in the twelfth century, it was delivered into the hands of the Catholic monarchs in 1255, establishing Jerez as a border town: de la Frontera.

It is a restoration piece now, housing orchards and fountains indicative of the age that created it. A different age surrounds it now. From its battlements one can see the tiled spire of San Miguel and the white sprawl of suburbia baking in the heat. There is the dense thicket of narrow, whitewashed streets around Plaza Plateros and the church of San Dionisio from where the cofradias wearing their tall, conical penitent’s caps and cloth masks bear the pasos though the streets each Easter to a din of trumpets, drums and saitas.  By San Dionisio is La Cruz Blanca where I left my apartment three floors above a stationer’s and a religious icon shop withpenetente dolls in its windows. It is through my apartment windows, late at night, that I hear Salmonetti as he rounds the cafés and sings for money. A Gitano heroin addict his voice is mesmerizing, an unaccompanied and unrestrained Flamenco cry, as though his soul is leaving his body.

At the corner of La Cruz Blanca there is the Ayuntamiento, the town hall on Consitorio, and its attendant demonstration. Every morning there is a protest against the economic crisis that has resulted in unpaid wages and massive unemployment. People camp out by its front doors. There are posters everywhere. There are sirens, horns and chanting. Once there were shots during a police stand-off. But not today. Today there is only the castanet rattle of white storks nesting on the roof of San Dionisio. It is the only sound during the siesta.

One can also see the Tio Pepe weathervane above Gonzalez-Byass. Tio Pepe is fino; dry sherry, and all sherry comes from Jerez. Sherry and Jerez are the same word. For almost a millennium a steady flow of the fortified wine has been drawn from the soleras of this region. On a hot still day such as this, the arid streets of Jerez are scented with brandy.

Remarkable, too: my bicycle is where I left it the night before. Perhaps, even to theborrachos, it doesn’t look worth stealing. I remove the D-lock that cost more than it did to replace the tyres and set off to the south-east, through the industrial polygon and past the water-treatment plant to El Portal where an abandoned sugar warehouse has been colonized by storks who weave their great creels high on the lidless walls. People sit on patio furniture on the pavements of El Portal and watch the light change. Glasses of beer stagnate by their feet and chickens walk under their chairs, pecking at crumbs.

I turn off the main road into open farmland, cycling under the rail bridge that links Jerez with El Puerto de Santa María and, beyond that, Cádiz. There is the turbine hiss of a train passing overhead. It is going the other way: the express to Sevilla. It was at Jerez station that I saw the matador Juan José Padilla. He lost his eye to a Miura bull in Zaragoza, and nearly died from his wounds. Of course, nearly means didn’t. He returned to the arena five months later. When asked he says that he lost his eye in order to truly see. He is a gaunt man with an eye-patch and he fought at the Fería that year.

I did not see Padilla don the traje de luces, the matador’s suit of lights; but I have seen the corrida de toros: the bullfight.

 

In Zaragoza, in the ring of La Misericordia, I go to see a bullfight during a public holiday in May. Of course, you cannot fight a bull, no more so than you can fight death. You can cheat death, sure; but only for now. You can postpone its victory with courage and guile, but that’s all. People think it’s an unfair fight. They’re right. The arena always wins: it always bests the matador either via the bull, the crowd or through time. To be gored by a bull is one thing. To be jeered at by the crowd is something else; another kind of death. To grow old… well…

At the corrida I find myself sitting by a row of Spaniards and the nearest asks me a question. My Spanish is limited to a few words. I can´t understand him. He understands and asks me only ¿Alemán? ¿Alemán?

Am I a German? No, I shake my head; and failing to find the right word say ‘Irlanda del Norte’. Nodding at the curiosity value of this he passes my answer down the line and his companions raise their plastic cups of beer to me and smile. We are in the cheap seats, getting the least shade, but the performance is in the afternoon so we miss the most part of the heat. Zaragoza is not as hot as Jerez, but it is hot enough, and windy on the exposed Aragón plains. An awning suspended like a jellyfish can be pulled in and out to provide shade. As the corrida begins a blade of diamond light falls across the arena – the Spanish word for sand – and the toreros walk through it on their paseíllo. Their suits of light glitter and sparkle as they promenade before the crowd and the matadors doff their black, bicorn monterahats to select people as they pass.

There will be six bulls that afternoon, selected by lottery for these two matadors. They will kill three apiece, taking turns in the ring. There are thus two teams oftoreros. None of the bulls are Miura bulls. Miura bulls, like the one that gored Padilla, are the most aggressive, the strongest, most agile and most intelligent. Their elemental vigour is summoned by Lamborghini, who employ a Miura bull as their emblem.  I don’t know what breed these are, but they’re not Miura. I do know that they weigh about half a ton as their weight is displayed above the gates that allow them into the ring.

A team, or cuadrilla, of toreros is composed of the following: there is the matador; he, sometimes she, who kills the bull. The cuadrilla is theirs and they work to weary the bull for him. There are three toreros, assistant bullfighters who provoke the bull into tiring charges with their yellow and pink capes, called capotes. Later in thecorrida they will assume the role of banderillos, placing harpoons calledbanderillas in the bull’s shoulders. They will do this by hand. The matador partakes in these stages. Padilla was planting the banderillas when he was gored.

There are also two picadores. A picador is a mounted spear-man. They wear armour on their legs and wide-brimmed castoreño hats. Their horses are blind-folded and I’ve heard that their vocal cords are cut so that their cries do not dismay the crowd or the other horses. The pale picador costumes blaze in the light. Bothcuadrillas walk before the crowd. In the stables their bulls are waiting.

The corrida is about the bull. My first bull launches itself out of the gates as the band’s shrill fanfare shivers the air. It charges across the sand, leaps and smashes off the top of the barricade. Sometimes the bull vaults the barricade. This happened at Las Ventas, in Madrid when, not only did the bull vault the barricade, but it skewered a man through the ankle. He was dragged around and around the front row by the enraged bull.

Once in the ring the toreros goad the bull, shouting and waving their capotes. When the bull charges one of them, he ducks behind a wooden shield at the barricade and a fellow torero goads it from the other side of the arena. So it goes, and it is during this stage of the corrida that the bull is at its most dangerous. I am used to seeing bulls as heavy, rustic behemoths. These bulls are fast and of a vicious temperament, with all their power stored in the massive shoulders. The bull ends the first stage unscathed, alert and on a hair-trigger.

The second stage involves the picador. He keeps his horse steady within an area marked out by the side of the arena. He shouts at the bull to charge him. This is when the bull first lowers its head and paws the ground. When it charges it hits the horse broadside, almost pushing it over. The picador stabs the bull’s shoulders with his pike and the tip comes off in the heavy muscle leaving a pair of ribbons to bloody in the fresh wound. The bull is lured away by a torero. The picador accepts a new pike and goads the bull again. Today the horses wear mattresses on their sides as armour. In the past this was not so and many horses were eviscerated. The pike weakens the bull’s shoulders. Its head drops. I can see the blood pumping from its punctured neck in thick spurts. I can see it streaming over one foreleg like a sleeve.

Now the banderillos run past the bull and launch their banderillas into those shoulders. Each banderilla is festooned with paper flowers that become saturated with blood. After they are planted, the bull has six banderillas speared in its shoulders. They do not go deep, but they drum the animal’s flanks and enrage it. I’ve been told that in the villages near Zaragoza the banderillas are covered in Chinese fire-crackers. In some villages they attach burning brands to the horns.

The matador must now face the bull. He carries a capote and encourages the bull to charge him. The closer the brush with death, the greater the applause. In the audience, cocky young men blow clouds of cigar smoke up to the light. With each deft, death-defying pass, a cry of ¡Olé! goes up from the crowd. Young women stop whispering and giggling and cry their approval, hands held open to the spectacle before them. It is when the matador exchanges his capote for the blood-red muletathat I know the end is coming. The muleta is the rod that holds up the smaller cape behind which is hidden the sword, or el estoque, with which he will kill the bull. At first there are more charges, the matador holds the muleta in a style called La Veronica after Saint Veronica who wiped Christ’s face during the passion and is depicted holding the cloth out to her side with both hands.

The matador cannot move when the bull charges. To do so is cowardice. The bull, bleeding and wrathful, descends upon him again and again, and again and again he evades death by a hair. ¡Olé! The spectators are on their feet and I am with them.  ¡Olé! The bull rages past the motionless matador; only the muleta sweeps to one side as the bull passes ¡Olé! The bull veers and is channeled by the matador into position, head down, shoulders exposed. The estoque is poised, like an extension of the matador, like the bill of a heron. It goes between the bull’s horns, through the bloodied shoulders and down into the ribcage where it pierces the heart. ¡Olé! The bull hacks up blood, its mighty life flies from it and it collapses.

The crowd applauds and I applaud, more to blend in than anything else. I’m not sure what I am applauding but I continue to applaud even when the matador takes a small blade and severs the bull’s cervical vertebrae, removing forever what life may have lingered on in the prostrate form. Only he can do this and it is for this he is called the matador – the killer.

One of the bulls collapses that afternoon, prior to its appointment with el estoque. To rouse it, the toreros pull on its tail until it gets up again. This cuadrilla is booed by the crowd, yet this cuadrilla belongs to the matador whom they favour: Serafin Marín.

Serafin Marín tours the arena after the corrida, doffing his montera hat to dignitaries and people who hold a special significance for him. Flowers are handed down to him from the stalls. He has killed three bulls that afternoon, all in an ordained ritual fashion. His green traje de luces dazzles as it catches the full light, and he salutes the admiring throng.

The other matador? Well, I can’t recall what his name was. On the way out the stalls are littered with plastic cups, spilled beer, cigar ends and are carpeted with the shells of sunflower seeds. Janitors are sweeping them down and the sound of their brushstrokes mingles with the murmur of the crowd.

I’m asked about cruelty. Yes, it’s cruel. So are most of our dealings with animals. Yet the fighting bulls range all their lives on the dehesa, the oakwood wilderness of the Andalucían countryside. They live life free and strong. Their death is cruel, but it is significant. One knows of their death and, if they’re good enough, one learns of the life of the matador. Life and death have weight in the arena. I compare it with the hum-drum lives lived by others. I compare the death of the bull with the death of beef cattle: animals kept weak so they’re tender, fed and housed in dreadful conditions so they’re cheap, mashed and fried and served in a polystyrene box to teenagers who don’t even think about what they leave half uneaten to be thrown in the bin by exhausted restaurant staff.

 

On the road I pass a picador in training. He sits on his horse and guides it in circles. It wears its padded armour, but not its blind-fold. On the road, there is no shelter from the dry heat. The water in my bottle is warm when I drink it. Between here and Córdoba lies the hottest part of Europe, and Ecija, the hottest town; known as El Sartén: ‘The Frying Pan’. When winter comes with its Saharan cold this land will bask in the memory of cloudless skies toasting the soil, and countless sunflowers following a sun that claims the heavens for itself. At a junction there is a hand-painted sign directing me towards Cocodrilos.

After miles of fencing and farmland I feel I have taken the wrong road and am considering turning back when there is a more substantial sign: KARIBA – Granja de Cocodrilos. I have arrived. A track made by 4x4s leaves the road and bumps its way through sparse conifer bushes to a series of massive greenhouses. There is no-one at the visitor’s kiosk. There is no-one around at all. There is only silence. Then a man appears, walking towards me from a small concrete building, drying his hands on a dishcloth.

Here is a chance to practice my Spanish. I buy a ticket and he offers to show me around. All Europe’s zoos, he tells me, here in Spain, in Germany, Italy, you name it; all Europe’s zoos get their crocodiles from here. Here and only here. Yes, this is the only source. No, we don’t kill them. They are not for meat; he laughs at the idea. No, they are not for leather either, not for belts or handbags. We breed them. We send them to zoos all over Europe. He leads me to the small concrete building. It is his office and there is a tank, an aquarium in which baby crocodiles are idling away their youth. He picks one out and holds it up for me to get a good look. The baby crocodile opens its mouth. Its tongue is the colour of lemon sorbet and its eyes are like butterscotch. The man slips a rubber band over its jaws and lets me hold it. It is a tiny, living jewel. Its perfection far surpasses anything human hands could make.

He returns it to the tank, slipping the rubber band over his finger like a ring and shows me outside. There is a series of ponds behind high fences and a wooden bridge where visitors can stand and admire the adult crocodiles. But only in August, he says. These days the nights are too cold. They are all Nile Crocodiles and if the temperature drops below eleven degrees they die. See there, he points to a stuffed specimen: that’s one that died in the cold. The other way they die is though fighting. We keep them in there, he says, and gestures towards the greenhouses. Look, though: and he brings me over to a larger glass tank in which two larger crocodiles are floating. They are about the size of cats; months old, he tells me, but I don’t hear how many months. He picks one up and fits a bigger band over its snout. The crocodile doesn’t make a move.

When he hands it to me I feel the animal’s weight, its living, mortal weight and I feel the profundity of being in direct contact with one of our planet’s supreme beings. Its scales, clean enamel tiles fit together, flush against one another. Its belly is cream, its back black and grey, and its teeth are like icicles. Its eyes are glazed bronze.  It rests in my hands, as still as if it were sleeping. But it isn’t sleeping, and I have never felt more awake. I begin to laugh and the man photographs me holding the crocodile.

When it is back in its tank we go to the greenhouses. Sliding open the main door I am struck by how humid it is. Water drips from the ceiling and rattles sheets of plastic that lie over scores of concrete pens. The man lifts away a sheet and I see the green lozenges of crocodile heads in a pool of water filmed with algae. These are older, he says, two years and up. In neighbouring pens there are fewer animals but they are bigger. They lie heaped on top of one another or floating in the water where, I’m told, it’s warmer. A sign warns us that ‘These Animals Jump’. How old? About seven years. I look across the expanse of the greenhouse.

How many? About two thousand.

He replaces the sheeting. Even in the stifling humidity of the greenhouse it is still too cold for them. We leave and he slides the door shut and locks it with a padlock and chain. The next greenhouse is for the parents. There is one great pen here, and when I peer over it I am confronted with the biggest crocodile I have ever seen. Monolithic, it dominates the view like an explosion. I wince as though I’ve just downed strong liquor. This is the first thing I see when I look over the wall of the enclosure, and the guide chuckles at my reaction. So this is where the myth of Leviathan and the tales of dragons come from. The crocodile is twenty-five years old, a breeding male in a long pen that runs the length of the greenhouse. His fellows are no less impressive. The concrete banks of their pen drain into a channel of green water on which floats a thick rind of flocculent algae. Basking crocodiles are encrusted with it and it is livid green against their dark skins.

They are only fed every few days, says the man, now pushing a wheel-barrow of whole oven-ready chickens along the length of the pen. He stops and begins lobbing the chickens over the fence that separates us from the animals. One moment still, torpid or half-dead, the next flashing into life to snap up the food. They growl and crunch the bones as they toss them back and smash them between their teeth. They radiate a savage grandeur. The small crocodiles I held will grow up to be one of these. They will grow up to be kings over all who are proud.

¡Olé! indeed.

 

  Image Credit: Stardust portraits, by Sergio Albiac.  www.sergioalbiac.com

Image Credit: Stardust portraits, by Sergio Albiac. www.sergioalbiac.com

Paul McGranaghan was born in Derry and grew up in Strabane, Northern Ireland. He attended grammar school in Omagh and then went to Manchester where he studied Zoology. He worked as a microbiologist near Aberystwyth, Wales, and as a Neuroscientist, again in Manchester. He has travelled throughout Ireland and Europe, living for a year in Italy and two years in Spain. He currently lives in Dublin, where he enjoys receiving gifts.

His first published work was the short thriller: McGranaghan P, Davies JC, Griffith GW, Davies DR, Theodorou MK (1999). The survival of anaerobic fungi in cattle faeces. FEMS Microbiol Lett 29: 293-300, followed by the peer-reviewed classic: McGranaghan, P.A., Piggins, H.D., 2001. Orexin-A-like immunoreactivity in the hypothalamus and thalamus of the Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) and Siberian hamster (Phodopus sungorus), with special reference to circadian structures. Brain Res. 904, 234–244.

Having escaped from the laboratory, he wrote ‘The Pamela Anderson’, which was published in the Sunday Tribune and selected for inclusion in The New Hennessy Book of Irish Fictionpublished by New Island. This anthology represented the best of ten years of new Irish writing. He accepted an invitation to promote this book on national radio.

His subsequent work showed a distinct focus on the natural world and he wrote a number of well-received pieces for the BBC culminating in his stories ‘The Noble Rot’, ‘Ashes’, and ‘Las Salinas’ being awarded prize-winning status in the BBC Wildlife Magazine Nature-Writer competitions of 2010, 2011, and 2013 respectively. His short story ‘Bean Sídhe’ appeared in A Pint and a Haircut, an anthology of Irish stories published to raise funds for Concern Worldwide. He is a music critic with Highbrowse.ie 
(Updated May 2014)