Because so many of the truths in our lives are hidden, denied or twisted in disguise, it’s nice to have the occasion to state a truth that is unanimously agreed upon. If you dislike the central concept of a book, it is darn difficult to like the book. Don’t waste your time or risk eyestrain reading The Martian Chronicles or Stranger in a Strange Land if you are firmly convinced that there is no possibility of intelligent life on other worlds. Despise books about war? Then skip over All Quiet on the Western Front. And as for bullfighting, well here we are. The Moment of Truth (Pegasus Books) is a novel about bullfighting. Proceed with caution.
Damian McNicholl plot, set in the early 1950s of Texas and Mexico, does contain scenes where the morality of bullfighting is discussed, but it does so in only the expected ways. I think it’s abhorrent/but you eat meat. It is cruel to kill/the bull leads a glorious life for his four plus years of it. And so forth. The central character, a novice American bullfighter named Kathleen bats away the arguments like Roger Federer dealing with a poorly struck lob in another, tidier sport.
The argument that goes missing though is one that would have lifted The Moment of Truth into a whole different plane and one that would have been fascinating to resolve. Let me challenge you with it. Imagine a bullfight, develop a picture of it in your mind. I’ll wager that the image you have conjured is that of a man and a bull, standing on sand, a cape being twirled, a sword at the ready. Now, what is missing from that picture? The audience.
It’s not so much the killing of the bull that is morally troubling, it’s the enjoyment of it. Death itself may be the inevitable price of survival; if none of us died we would run out of room. Death is the path to food. For we meat eaters that is obvious, yet even vegans have to kill plants in order to gain nourishment. No one buys a ticket to watch the killing floor of an abattoir; that seems abhorrent. Yet what is a bullfight but a hyper-ritualized abattoir?
So why do so many people enjoy it? What does that say about humanity? Those are far, far more interesting questions. One can understand the matadors. Like Formula One drivers they have a need for the heightened sensory experience of dangerous public acts, and furthermore I do believe them when they say that they feel theirs is an honorable profession and not one of cruelty. But what about the audience? Why does it enjoy watching (let’s call it what it is) torture ending in death?
McNicholl never gets into that issue, preferring instead to make a rather simplified feminism the morality play running just under the plot’s surface. Men are beasts who cheat on and beat their long-suffering, acquiescent wives. Women have to try twice as hard to gain even a hint of equality and even then Kathleen is recognized and admired as much for her auburn locks as for her skills with the cape and sword. It’s not that McNicholl is wrong about any of this, it’s just presented as so much paint-by-numbers business. If you’ve seen one CW network series, trust me, you’re right up to speed.
There are good points about The Moment of Truth, however I think I’ll leave those for the end, as it’s nice to leave a piece of reading with a positive echo. Until then, there are a couple of writing choices here that I find truly perplexing.
For one, most of the novel is written from Kathleen’s point-of-view, first person narration. And then, for no reason I can discern, the voice flips into third person for a chapter and then returns to the first person. I don’t have any problem whatsoever with multiple narrative voices in a novel. That one’s been with us at least since Wuthering Heights. Yet, there should be some purpose for flipping the voice. I wondered if McNicholl had brought in the third person/all-knowing narrator so that we might dig around in the thoughts of Fermin, the former matador who becomes Kathleen’s tough love trainer and (inevitably) substitute father figure. That would be a purpose, but there’s nothing there really. It’s not like the anger and embarrassment he feels in a scene can’t be conveyed by first person observation. Well, I just chalk that one up to an odd choice made.
The other odd choice fairly ripped at my inner ear. Much of the dialogue, particularly that of the Texans, has all the subtlety and nuance of an improv sketch based on an imitation of old John Wayne movies. It shows up jarringly in the first person narration where Kathleen says several times she was – and I quote – fixin’ to do this or that. People may drop their Gs in speech, but they don’t when they’re quoting their own thoughts. McNicholl being from Northern Ireland may have thought he was being clever and accurate in doing this; his editor should have kept adding in the letter G until the author eventually gave up the protest.
Now all that said, the actual bullfight scenes, the training scenes, a truly morbid scene where Kathleen kills her first bull in an abattoir, all those are written extremely well. As an old sage once said, if this is the sort of thing you like then you’ll like this sort of thing. The Moment of Truth is an enjoyable read if you can stomach bullfighting. I managed to get through it with no major psychic damage being inflicted so, er, bully for that. ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. Author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications.