I don't approve of killing animals for entertainment, and this book did not change that disapproval. I endorse this book because of its qualities as a model for introducing a subject to a new learner, rather than for its subject matter.
If you like bullfights, you will like this book because Death in the Afternoon will expand your understanding of what you see. If you want to go to bullfights, this is a good book also because it will tell you how to do so in the most enjoyable way for you.
Most people will never attend a bullfight, because of ethical concerns, some personal dismay about their potential reaction to the violence and horror of the event, or due to lack of opportunity (bullfighting is mainly done in Spain and Mexico). Many of these people will have some interest in understanding more about bullfighting or the appeal and spectacle of the event. Death in the Afternoon provides you with a thoughtful way to satisfy any curiosity you may have.
Hemingway set out to write "an introduction to the modern Spanish bullfight and attempt[ed] to explain that spectacle both emotionally and practically." I think he more than succeeded.
As a child, my parents sometimes took me to Tiajuana in Baja California where bullfights were regularly held on the weekends. We all agreed that we did not approve of killing bulls for sport, and never attended one. But my curiosity was aroused by the sight of the enormous crowds that regularly attended. Until reading this book, I could not understand the appeal. Now I do. I know that bullfights are not for me, but I now know why some like them very much.
Hemingway leads you gently into the subject as though you were chatting while seated at a comfortable table in an outdoor cafe on a pleasant afternoon sipping your favorite beverages. In fact, for part of the book, he invents an "old lady" whom he converses with for comic effect.
He tells you about his own experiences throughout beginning with, "At the first bullfight I ever went to I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been led to believe would happen to the horses." It turned out that this was not his reaction at all. He liked the bullfight, and saw 1,500 bulls killed before writing this book. He also reports that many people he took to fights often experienced different emotions than they expected. Women who disliked violence did not automatically dislike bullfights, and macho men did not necessarily like them.
The central emotion that "good" bullfights create is of grace in the face of death which is inspired by "the closeness with which the matador brings the bull past his body and the slowness with which he can execute the pass."
In the period about which he writes, the 1920s into 1931, bullfighting was in a "decadent" age brought about by a fascination with coming ever closer to the bull's horn and doing more and more elaborate cape work. In addition to the death of many bulls, this also brought about horrible injuries and death for virtually every bullfighter mentioned. That brings special meaning to Hemingway's assertion that bullfighting "is not a sport in the Anglo-Saxon sense . . . ." "Rather it is a tragedy, the death of the bull . . . ." But you will also come to know the tragedy of Joselito, Manuel Granero, and Maera.
Despite my objections to bullfighting, I was tremendously impressed by Hemingway's powers of observation. You will learn about so many miniscule aspects and details of bullfighting, that it will leave your head spinning. For example, a bull that erratically charges to one side or another has to be handled much differently in each pass than one who is like a mechanical bull and is very predictable. Bullfighters prefer the latter, but some of the best work is with the former if the bull is malleable. Does the bullfighter try to teach the bull, or simply survive the experience? The reaction of the bullfighter tells much about his character. The reaction of the fans tells much about their knowledge and character. You feel like you are looking at the world through many revolving kaleidescopes as images are considered in the context of other images, like an unending house of mirrors.
The book says a lot about character -- the character of those involved in bullfighting and the fans. Although Hemingway admires the "honor" of those who face death bravely and act properly in the bull ring, he also points out that too much "honor" is dangerous. In essence, he makes an argument against the values of bullfighting even though he is an aficionado.
He is honest with us, by also sharing his own failed experiences with trying to learn to fight the bulls.
The book is greatly aided by many detailed and impressive photographs that illustrate the points in the book that would otherwise be lost on the reader who has not attended a bullfight. There is also a 61 page glossary of terms to help you handle all of the new concepts he throws at you.
There are some incidental benefits for those who decide not to attend bullfights. Hemingway provides many detailed descriptions of the geography, weather, and characteristics of the people in different parts of Spain. I got several ideas for places I would like to visit on future trips as a result. At the end, he laments that he could not work in the rest of Spain into the book beginning with the Prado. I shared that lament, because a similar book on Spain by Hemingway would have been even more interesting and valuable to me. I can only imagine what his other wonderful descriptions would have been like.
I suggest you take this book and outline it to see the process by which Hemingway takes you from being a neophyte to a quite well-grounded person about bullfighting. How could you do the same for a subject that you need to introduce many people to? If you learn from his story-telling skills, you will be well-rewarded for your experience.