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LITERARY REVIEW August 2011
multitude of meanings.
Growing up in Texas, the only black student in her class at a pr ivate Episcopalian high school, Rhodes-Pitts immersed herself in books by Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, Ann Petry and Ralph Ellison. Their fictional protagonists arr ive in Harlem – often from the South, often fleeing some act of violence or persecution – filled with expectation. Sometimes these characters descend into shades of disillusion or despair, much as Harlem itself would sink from a hopeful black Zion into what Ellison in 1948 called ‘the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth’. For the teenage Rhodes-Pitts, it was only the ‘outward, upward momentum’ of these fictional arrivals that had mattered, a hangover from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s when the neighbourhood was celebrated as the ‘race capital’ of black people the world over. Then, the graceful architecture bequeathed by prosperous white families who fled the migrant influx had marked Harlem out from the ramshackle, dilapidated quarters to which blacks were confined in other American cities. Black artists, writers and professionals congregated from across the country, and bars and jazz clubs catered to wealthy white patrons in pursuit of the exotic. But the Depression of the 1930s ravaged Harlem, and the postwar retur n to prosper ity bypassed the neighbourhood. As employment dried up and more and more migrants were crowded into the area by discriminatory landlords and housing authorities, a new image of Harlem as the archetypal black ghetto emerged.
This new image overlaid that of the vibrant race capital, but did not erase it. Hopes lingered that the black citywithin-a-city would once again become a vanguard of race progress: Harlem had become, for the poet Langston Hughes, a ‘dream deferred’. Rhodes-Pitts borrows her title from Ralph Ellison’s essay of 1948, which lamented that ‘in Harlem the reply to the greeting, “How are you?” is often, “Oh, man, I’m nowhere”’. As she keenly points out, ‘nowhere’ is also the most literal meaning of ‘utopia’, and through all its bleak notoriety Harlem has remained a place of fantasies of rebirth and renewal.
To young whites faced with an impenetrable property market, Harlem once again extends the promise of ‘outward, upward momentum’. Yet developers and estate agents eager for the spoils are unsure whether to consecrate or efface Harlem’s chequered past. Some speak of ‘New Harlem’ or revert to old names such as Mount Morris Park in place of the apparently ominous Marcus Garvey Park. Their ambivalence reproduces in new for ms what Rhodes-Pitts calls the ‘original conundrum’ of this stretch of upper Manhattan, which throughout the twentieth century figured as a barometer of black America’s fortunes. Harlem ‘is the result of bigotry and exclusion. It is also a proving ground of aspirations. It is a place that contracts one’s possibilities, and a place where all things are possible.’ To order this book for £11.99, see LR bookshop on page 12 FOREIGN PARTS
BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS
see a person on foot – only ever mounted – until they are in the arena. Bullfights in Seville are preceded by an announcement: ‘Silence! A man risks his life here today.’ I didn’t know that Orson Welles had trained as a bullfighter in Seville for four months under the name El Americano, or that the sport nowadays turns over 2.5 billion euros a year and employs 200,000 people for 1,000 fights. That’s a threefold increase since Hemingway’s time. And it’s strangely heartening to know that if you walk past a policeman in Seville carrying a half-concealed sword he will just smile and cry ‘torero!’. Outside the arena Fiske-Harrison is less sure-footed. His conversations with off-duty bullfighters rarely get further than the ‘why do you do it?’ stage and seem to take place at social functions where it is hard to establish any intimacy. I wanted to know about these men’s homes, their families, their priests and the surgeons who patch them up time and again (many bullfighters have only one
INTO THE ARENA: THE WORLD
OF THE SPANISH BULLFIGHT
By Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Profile Books 284pp £15.99)
YOU MIGHT THINK that Ernest Hemingway had bulls and Spain all wrapped up, but it is fifty years now since The Dangerous Summer, his study of two bullfighting brothersin-law, was first published and more than eighty since his novel Fiesta, about a group of friends who go to watch the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Spain has changed immeasurably since then, shaking off the ‘black legend’ that for centuries branded it as a backward, fervid, superstitious and cruel society.
testicle apparently). We learn that a Madrid psychiatrist has found that the brains of bullfighters exhibit a similar neurochemical balance to those of pr isoners classified as clinical psychopaths. Are bullfighters psychopaths then? It would be interesting to learn more.
Yet some elements of superstition, fervour and cruelty still shape Spanish cul t ure and none more so than bullfighting. The question of whether a moder n society should endorse animal suffer ing as enter t a inment i s bound to cross the mind of any casual visitor to a bullfight.
Fiske-Harrison also finds it difficult to melt into the background, perpetually reminding us that he is a writer and an a c t o r, and o f t en s ounding rather pleased with himself. One chapter is entirely wasted with a tetchy attack on an animal-rights activist. When he descr ibes the ar r ival of his friend Giles Coren to write an
Alexander Fiske-Har r ison first tussled with the issue in his early twenties and, as a student of both philosophy and biology, has perhaps tuss led with i t more lengthily and cogently than most of us. The germ of this book was an essay in Prospect (a ‘rather longwinded’ one, by his own admission). Into the Arena is an attempt to take the bull more firmly by the horns. In researching it, Fiske-Harrison spent nearly two years following a clutch of toreros, several of whom became his friends. He studied their art and learned some of it himself, all the while trying to come to a decision about the morality of a sport that is also an art form.
Writing: a dangerous profession
His eye-witness reports of bullfights are particularly good. He transposes the spectacle into words with great success, conveying the drama of the corrida while explaining individual moves and techniques with eloquence and precision. One bull is ‘a paranoia of horn and muscle’. He is also knowledgeable about the different breeds of bull, some more deadly than others, and the great families whose names are synonymous with breeding bulls and fighting them. I didn’t know that bulls bred to fight never article on him as ‘the madness of the media descended on Seville’, you feel he is exaggerating the importance of all concerned.
I liked Fiske-Harrison much more in the final chapter, where he questions himself and his project. ‘As a spectator, I was always afraid I was missing something. As a protagonist, I was always … well, just afraid.’ Suddenly I felt I understood why Alexander Fiske-Harrison had wanted to learn to be a bullfighter, and to fight a young bull in front of his parents in Spain. He did it as a tribute to his brother, who was killed while practising another dangerous sport, skiing. I think he wanted to confront danger and survive, as his brother had not. It makes the final sentences of the book all the more poignant: ‘[If] your heart goes out to the bull, as it should, let it also go to the matador. For it is he who is your brother.’ To order this book for £12.79, see LR bookshop on page 12
LITERARY REVIEW August 2011