lAS SUERTES DEL TOREO POR SUS MAESTROS (BULLFIGHTING PASSES INTERPRETED BY THEIR MASTERS)
José Luis Ramón.Editorial: Espasa Calpe S. A,. Madrid, 1998
A GENERIC AND UPDATED TAUROMAQUIA* By Mario Carrión
I recently read the bullfighting treatise LAS SUERTES DEL TOREO POR SUS MAESTROS, written by José Luis Ramón, the excellent bullfighting critic and editor of the Spanish magazine 6TOROS6. I was anticipating reading it since the author communicated to me his intention of compiling the definitions of existing bullfighting passes or suertes** as narrated by the individual bullfighters who created them, or by the toreros who had practiced those passes with skill and frequency. At the same time, I was afraid that the content of this work would lack originality, since most of those narratives had already been published in a series of articles appearing weekly in 6TOROS6, from March 5, 1996, until January 20, 1998.
This was not the case, since the author has managed to put together those weekly narratives in logical sections that follow the development of a corrida. Moreover, each section is preceded by an introduction, in which he analyzes the function of each category of passes, discusses their merits and puts those suertes and their narrators in the proper historical perspective. The outcome is a unique tauromaquia that catalogues and defines existing suertes, not in an abstract manner, but by echoing the voices of one hundred plus performers who explain how they practice them and how they feel about their interpretations.
Lets now examine the text of the 413 pages in this interesting and informative book, while I simultaneously interject commentaries and observations pertinent to the material.
LA SUERTES DEL TOREO POR SUS MAESTROS contains a general introduction, 13 thematic chapters and an index. In the introduction, the author delineates the parameters of his work and also explains the method used to induce the toreros to orally narrate their interpretations of the suertes. This is how José Luis states his objectives:
Two main ideas have predominated in the creation of this text: the writing of a modern oral tauromaquia, composed by the voices of knowledgeable people, and the intent to establish a complete catalogue of existing bullfighting suertes. I hope that the juxtaposition of both goals has given birth to 'a manual for bullfighting', that includes the technique of each suerte as well as the personal anecdote of each master, as related to each suerte in question. The bullfighters have contributed so much that if my initial objectives have been met, it is thanks to them…Although this written tauromaquia emanates from multiple voices, there is only one hand, mine, which has converted the oral narrations of the bullfighters' experiences into prose.
Later the writer goes on to state his criteria for compiling the suertes and for selecting their narrators. First, each narrator had to be associated with the suerte, by having created it or performed it regularly as part of his repertoire. In some cases the narrators can be a direct descendants of the creator or the performer of the pass. Therefore the narrations usually start with "I" or "my father". This limitation gives a modern feature to José Luis' work, since, in fact, it excludes any pass that can only be read about in archaic tauromaquias. It is interesting to note that the 123 narrators chosen form a heterogeneous group of bullfighters of varying ages, status, styles and nationalities. The author also informs us about the method for choosing the suertes. First he identified passes associated with an active torero as well as suertes illustrated in old taurine magazines such as EL RUEDO. Later, he contacted the performers of such suertes, or a direct descendant of a performer, to invite them to orally describe the passes. Once they accepted the invitation, with the tape recorder on, Ramón allowed his subjects to speak freely about how they performed the passes. The task of José Luis was to engage his subjects in a dialogue and, with opportune questions, keep them focused on the right course. The results of those recording sessions show that each torero not only explained the mechanics of a given suerte, but also expressed his attitude about the suerte, and often about his times, fellow bullfighters, and bullfighting in general. José Luis also stresses that he has faithfully transcribed the dialogues, respecting the ideas of the narrators, and that he wrote them in colloquial prose, in the first person singular. The exceptions are five texts, two of which were reproduced from another magazines, and three were written by the matadors themselves.
But what the author does not say, and what I can testify to, since I know several of the narrators, is that the transcriptions are so valid that they reflect their personalities and psyches. Due also to the special circumstance of my role in this case as a critic as well as one of the participants, I can add a personal note to vouch for the realism of José Luis Ramón' s narrative. Allow me to explain.
In the spring of 1997 I visited the offices of 6TOROS6 where I met the author of this book. He showed me a photograph of me performing the costadillo pass. He copied it from an old EL RUEDO magazine. He invited me to describe my interpretation of this pass, with the purpose of including my narration in the series of articles SUERTES DEL TOREO that he was publishing weekly in his magazine. I accepted with certain hesitation, since it is not easy to extemporaneously describe a complex and artistic pass for a professional magazine. Immediately I started to describe the suerte, hardly noticing the recording machine nor the probing questions with which Jose Luis was guiding my dialogue and bringing order to my thoughts. I read the article a few weeks later and I was pleasantly surprised to see that José Luis had captured my expressions and thoughts in vivid and colloquial prose. This experience led me to conclude that the statements of so many artists appearing in LAS SUERTES DEL TOREO POR SUS MAESTROS represent their own professional concepts, expressed under the skillful direction of the author of this 'coral tauromaquia', as José Luis calls his work.
The main body of this treatise contains 13 chapters which follow the logical development of the work --lidia-- done with a bull. It starts with the chapter Suertes de recibo (Opening Passes), dealing with the passes performed with the cape before the picking of the animal. Three more chapters follow which are dedicated to three groupings of cape passes having similar characteristics or functions. The book continues with the Suerte de varas and Suertes de banderillas chapters. The first explains the different aspects of the picking, and the latter defines the many ways of placing the banderillas. The muleta work prevails in the six following chapters. Many expert matadors bring alive the fundamental passes here, such as 'the natural' and 'chest pass', as well as the functional, decorative and spectacular passes. Nothing is left to the imagination, and the reader will encounter in those chapters the descriptions of all the common passes, that he may see in any corrida, together with the rarely performed passes, which he has probably never seen or read about before. The last chapter, La hora de la verdad: estocada, descabello y puntilla (The Hour of Truth) defines the suertes that end the life of the bull. To facilitate comprehension of each narration a picture of the narrator performing the suerte appears with it. A series of pictures of other performers, not the narrators, also illustrates the same suertes at the end of each chapter.
In the prologue to all the chapters, the author places the group of suertes being discussed in them in context. He accomplishes this with carefully considered arguments, often supported by quotes from the tauromaquias of the old masters "Pepe-Illo, "Paquiro" and "Guerrita", as well as from the modern writings of matadors Domimgo Ortega, Rafael Ortega and Robert Ryan, and critic "Pepe Alameda"; and with the opinions of many other great toreros. The great effort made by the author in keeping his neutrality is to be admired, especially if we consider the fact that he is a critic by profession. He has avoided criticizing the intrinsic merit of the suertes, as well as the relative artistic quality of the performers or creators of those passes. Instead, he has concentrated his writing on presenting the suertes and defining their functions, allowing the masters to show their attitudes and emotions toward them. For instance, he has chosen Pepe Luis Vázquez, Curro Romero and Juan Posada to describe 'the veronica'; and "Manolete", Paco Camino, Rafael Ortega, Manolo Vázquez, and "El Cordobés" to discuss 'the natural'. These are all bullfighters of diversified styles and represent different bullfighting eras. Each narrator explains his interpretation of the same pass, containing his unique touch, but the author withholds his opinion allowing you, the reader, to judge the merit of each suerte and matador.
Those chapters contain so much information that the reader, in addition to learning how the suertes are performed, is exposed to relevant concepts of modern bullfighting, as well as to trivial anecdotal incidents, such as how certain matadors, because of vanity or ignorance, claim to be the creators of some existing passes. By analyzing the text, it is also possible to interpolate theories beyond the scope of the work. One example: examining the index I found that a majority of the bullfighters narrating a variety of original and daring passes were toreros from the fifth and six decades of this century, as well as modern Mexican matadors. Therefore, the analysis reinforces the often heard opinions which maintain that the bullfighting of that time was more creative, and that Mexican toreros today are more given to experiment with passes than Spaniards are, especially with the cape. Another observation: paying attention to the similar taurine expressions used by the group of bullfighters belonging to a certain era, it is easy to identify recurrent terminology which defines the sense and style of bullfighting prominent in those years.
To conclude, let me assert that LAS SUERTES DEL TOREO POR SUS MAESTROS is an important book that fills a vacuum in the taurine bibliography, because until the publication of this work, a modern and eclectic tauromaquia that compiles and clearly explains how to perform the existing bullfighting passes did not exist. Without a doubt, as in the past, any great matador, helped by a ghostwriter, could have written a prescriptive tauromaquia of his way to interpret bullfighting. This would not have been enough to meet the present need, since the art of bullfighting has become too complex to be defined merely by the artistic and technical concepts of a unique super-matador. Nevertheless, it has been up to José Luis Ramón, a newspaper man and critic who had the vision to guide the voices of more than one hundred toreros, to give life to a tauromaquia that describes existing suertes, to inform us about them and their masters, and that places modern bullfighting in a historical perspective.
Finally, I must let you know that my extensive professional experience notwithstanding, I have gained invaluable knowledge from the know-how of so many great toreros. I believe that this complete and illustrated treatise of the art of bullfighting belongs on the book shelves of any good aficionado who, after enjoying reading it, may use its content as a unique source of reference.
*TAUROMAQUIA: a type of book peculiar to the bullfighting literature. They were common in the past, when bullfighting was not as structured as is in modern times. Usually a star matador, helped by a ghostwriter, would try to codify and prescribe the different moves in bullfighting. In the last half- century several star matadors, or writers, have written about their own interpretation of bullfighting, but they have not presumed to produce a tauromaquia prescribing thier own manner of bullfighting as the only way to bullfight.
**SUERTE: This is an inclusive term which refers to any interaction that takes place in the ring between torero and bull. "Pases" include only the moves done with the cape or the muleta. The' natural' and the 'veronica' are ' pases' and therefore 'suertes'; but the placing of the banderillas and the picking are only suertes.
Return to BIOGRAPHY