by Maia Wojciechowska
Interests: Spain, bullfighting, sport, choosing a career
Macmillan Publishing: 1964
141 pp. – 15 chapters
Manolo Olivar’s father was a famous matador who died in the ring when Manolo was only three. The entire town of Arcangel expects Manolo to follow in his father’s footsteps but Manolo has a secret – he is afraid of bulls. As Manolo grows older, he is taught all about bullfighting by six local men, but they do not let him near a bull because they believe he will start as his father did, by miraculously defeating a bull in his very first attempt. Manolo follows their direction, duty-bound, and although he overcomes some of his fear, and learns to admire the skill of the matadors, he somehow feels that this life is not for him. However the date is set, and at the age of 11 Manolo must face his first bull. What will he do? Will he succeed?
This is a quietly moving tale of a boy whose future is shackled to local superstition. It’s largely an interior novel, focussing on Manolo’s thoughts and feelings as he desperately tries to decide what is right for his community, his family, and himself. Despite his fear he wants to honour the father he cannot remember, he wants to be brave. As the day approaches in which he faces his first bull, the suspense deepens to a satisfying climax. What Manolo does that day takes courage of a very different sort than the villagers are expecting.
Even though the writer and characters express great admiration and respect for the bulls, this is still a story about an animal bloodsport. The book depicts the great skill, knowledge and dedication of the matadors, though it also provides an unromantic look at the violence, and the lives maimed and lost. Modern readers who are ethically dead-set against bullfighting will have trouble getting into this story, though the theme of being true to yourself despite social expectations is a solid one.
NB: There are a lot of Spanish terms specific to bullfighting in this book, so be sure to find an edition with the extensive glossary included at the end.
Conclusion: A well-written and thoughtful coming-of-age book, but its subject matter will put many modern readers off.