I have just arrived back in Nîmes for the French literary award, Le Prix Hemingway 2022, for which I am shortlisted (once again.)
I thought I would put up the composite draft of the original English, the excellent translation by Monique Allier-Chay, and my edit of that translated back into English. It may, as a result, have a clumsiness at the beginning in English, but has all of the power I intended at the finish.
It was published by Les Avocats du Diable in French (Amazon UK here, US here, France here, Spain here, Germany here) my English version is below.
THE FLIGHT OF THE CONDOR
AT first the blood had poured between his fingers like dark water seen swirling around rocks. The pain had been almost unbearable, but he had known pain enough in life to know it was nothing more than a mist one moved through. Think about something else. Where were they? They should be here by now.
Finally, he could hear voices and he knew that was good, for although the bleeding had slowed to a trickle, he knew his thoughts were drifting as his will diminished.
“¡Espera, torero! Estaremos ahí. Es peligroso, quédate quieto.”
He noticed one of his hands had fallen away from the wound, and he looked at the limb. It felt cold, and he knew that was bad. He tried to move it back into place, but it merely rolled on the ground. The sand felt different, colder than the hand, although all sensation was going now. As was vision. He could hear, just.
A voice said something indistinguishable in German. Which was strange, he thought.
* * *
Augusto was not, by nature, braver or more wilful than his cousins. And he like, them, had faced the calves at testings since he was six or seven years or old, the same age at which he had first sat on a horse. And, as with horses, he had received his share of childhood injuries – some cracked ribs, a broken collarbone – from both cattle and horses, but thought of neither with anxiety as a result.
However, where his cousins had horses of their own and rode every day, he did not. In fact, he had stopped accepting their invitations to join them riding as he could not bear their whispered mockery at his seat or the position of his hands or angle of his heels.
With the cattle it was different: they lived in fighting bull country but did not breed them themselves, and so faced them equally as often as he did. So, they were thrown through the air by the quarter-ton calves equally as often. When this happened, everyone laughed and took the laughter good naturedly. Augusto took it personally, though, with anger. And with that anger came courage and determination.
Once he had saved enough pesetas to buy a second-hand cape and a muleta and practise sword, he devoted as much time to studying their use as he did on his books. He found in the formalised movements, and the lines of body he had to form in combination with them, a sensation similar to that which he took from the piano music his mother had made him learn.
This peculiar combination of artistic feeling fuelled by an inner ire, a sensibility driven by a passion, was perhaps the defining feature of Augusto von Weimar y de Torres. It certainly determined the course of his life.
* * *
When a little older, and invited to the great ranch Los Alburejos one day, his cousins did not embarrass themselves in the practise bullring, but Augusto excelled. They fought like young gentlemen. Augusto, though, brought rage and the nascent glimmering of a beauty, and the audience responded to him differently.
A retired matador watching that day, who had once had such fame under the name El Niño de la Palma, and whose son would one day far exceed him, turned to the owner, and said a single word.
“I see, Cayetano.” Old Domech replied. “He is driven by something inside. And it comes out with elegance and tempo. He could be something.”
“What is his story?”
“A sad one. His father was one of the German pilots in the Condor Legion. He met the mother, Ana de Torres, in Seville and there was… an indiscretion. My son Álvaro was also a pilot in the war as you know. They became comrades, friends. Álvaro says the German would have married Ana, but he was shot down in the Battle of Madrid. I always try to help him, although they hid him and his mother away in Jimena for the shame of it.”
The two men were silent for moment, as one was after speaking of such things.
“He has his father’s instincts and reflexes and his Spanish family’s feeling for the bulls. Looking like that he could make a living on the sand…” Domecq left the statement open deliberately.
Cayetano Ordónez nodded, as another calf bent its head down to the boy’s will and muleta. Augusto’s body was as upright as a soldier, feet together, although his was chin against his chest like a violinist, as he pulled the wildness of the animal into an interaction with his movements until they joined to resemble a blurred sculpture placed upon a rotating plinth.
“I see how you could sell him to the afición: tall and golden haired with those long arms, and you see how when the brings the animal round he gets it to lead so strongly with one horn. With the wide horns of a real fighting bull they would be like an aeroplane’s wings on the turn. The Condor Legion you say. I fought under the name of my father’s business, La Palma. We will call him El Niño del Condor, ‘The Child of the Condor.’ I would pay to see that.”
“Get him a contract as a novillero. I will do the rest.” Domecq turned to shout over from their hide to the next one around the bullring. “Ángel?”
A man in his early twenties came over.
“Ángel Carmona,” Domecq explained to Ordóñez, “he was a matador but had bad luck. He wants to be a banderillero for someone who can make it where he could not. He can look after him.”
Cayetano nodded, and they shook hands. Ángel was watching Augusto in the ring.
“This one Don Juan Pedro?” Ángel asked with a voice with an element of hope he could not quite hide.
“Yes, this one will make it.”
* * *
It was an irony that it was his mother’s belief that he was destined for a better life that gave him the strength to resist her pleading when he told her he was to become a torero. She screamed and wept and cursed. People of their status did not become travelling showmen, she shouted. Better to be seen by a crowd than hide in the land of goats, he replied. She wailed that he would lead a rag-tag band of gypsies around the lowest taverns in the poorest towns as all novilleros, ‘novice matadors’, must: eating and drinking and sleeping beside prostitutes and thieves.
Better to be a Maestro among cut-throats than a bastard among lords, he answered.
Oddly, the thing which upset him most was his young uncle Marcos, who the family sent to try to talk him out of it. Marcos had been the only relation who had felt sorry for the boy when he was growing up, having no children of his own, and had taken him out on trips up to Granada. He had taught him to ski in the mountains and hear the deep song of flamenco in the caves. He regretted having to turn his back on him most of all. However, he did.
* * *
He was not, however, alone. Ángel became like an older brother to him. Ángel studied him as a torero studies a toro and adapted accordingly. Ángel tolerated Augusto’s black moods, which were frequent, and when Augusto regained control of himself, he instructed him.
Despite this, the heart of the instruction was to allow Augusto to be even more himself. He had already developed a personal way of dealing with the bull as a writer develops a voice or a painter a manner of brushwork. He pulled the animal in close, which always excites a crowd, but did so with such control of his instruments, the two-handed magenta cape or one-handed scarlet cloth of the muleta, and such utter stillness in his body that he seemed always at the centre of something terrifying yet controlled enough to be discernible as a deliberate art rather than the mere thrill of chaotic nature.
One day, as he toured the rings of Andalusia gathering a following at novilladas, ‘novice bullfights’, with this singular style, the great critic Díaz-Cañabate was in town, and he decided to see the young man they spoke of in the taurine cafés. He wrote a single line on Augusto’s performance in the newspaper ABC the next day.
“The young man caped the animal so close, and in such a rounded style, that he wore the bull like it was a belt.”
After that, the contracts came. Ordóñez had left Augusto to his own devices after his debut, and now it was Ángel who did his best to negotiate the money while also keeping Augusto out of the wrong sort of bars and the wrong women’s beds. The young man had developed a taste for success which could all too easily sour it.
It was the flaw Ángel did not see, though, which developed first. As the bulls Augusto faced grew in size, and the crowd’s applause grew in volume, he began to forget the bitterness of his childhood as the half-breed bastard son who had to step aside when his cousins walked down the corridor. And he lost the resentment-filled courage which came with that. Fear crept into him, the way fear always does, gradually, and then suddenly.
In Osuna, with a bull of old Saltillo of Moreno de la Cova, the great blow came. Although he was almost aesthetically perfect in the dance, El Niño del Condor was not yet a seasoned killer. He may also have been a little hungover that day, having broken his rule about not drinking the night before a fight. Which may have been why, as he placed the sword in, aiming between fourth and fifth rib, spine to the right, shoulder clavicle to the left, he had delayed a second too long with his hand on the sword-hilt. In counterstroke, the bull’s head reared, and its horn pierced the junction between Augusto’s shoulder and chest.
The bull died, but Augusto almost did as well. His lung collapsed, and despite the work of the doctor in the infirmary and then the surgeon’s labours in the hospital in Seville, he developed a pneumonic infection that left him teetering in the febrile delirium between the living and the dead for a week.
* * *
It was during this half-fever, half-coma, that he dreamed his mother had come to his bedside, telling him to go home. In reality, she had indeed visited him, and then she had left the hospital saying she would not speak to him again until he retired from the ring. From this mixture of the dream and the real he derived a fear of never seeing her, or his home, again.
It was a small fear, but it was a real one.
Then he dreamed that his father came to visit him, young and dressed in uniform as he was in the only photo Augusto had of him. However, his face had terrible burns, down to the bone, and the uniform was charred like the flesh beneath it. He asked in horror at what had happened, and his father answered only.
“Ich bin nicht nach Hause geflogen.”
‘I did not fly home.’
He had not heard the German language since his mother had hired a tutor to have it taught to him so one day he could, in his mother’s words, “return to his people.”
The small fear within him grew.
There was a last dream, which was in actuality a memory: a night in Granada with his uncle Marcos who had wanted to hear a woman sing called La Niña de los Peines, ´The Child of the Combs’. They spent the night moving from bar to bar searching for her, but they never found her. However, they drank a great deal and spoke with the gypsies after about the spirits and duende, the dark spirit the gypsies invoked to inform their Art, and an old woman had looked into Augusto’s eyes and said they were too cold and too blue. She said she could see right in him and that there was a hole in the middle of him which would destroy him.
Now the fear was as large as he was.
Finally, though, another voice could be heard and he woke up in the hospital.
“You are back Maestro,” said Ángel. “You are back. Now you heal and we make Art again.”
They had lost the contracts for that summer, and he had to dismiss the rest of his team.
They slept in the open, and Ángel worked on the farms during the day for money for food, while Augusto healed and trained, and trained and healed.
When he was strong enough and weather cooled a little, he was invited back to a testing, and he could feel the doubt in the air. They wondered, as they always wondered, whether he would come out of his goring the same or changed. They say one is not a torero until one has faced a bull, but one is not a matador, a ‘killer’, until one has met Death. Their doubt brought back his anger, and he caped their calves beautifully in his cold rage. They stopped laughing and they brought in a bull, a six-year-old who was too old for the ring but no good to breed from either.
With the fury from their doubt still surging in him, he dominated it, caped it to exhaustion, turned it round his body like the hands of a clock, until there was nothing left of it but the sound of its breath rolling across the ring in great waves. Then he took the steel killing sword from Ángel, who was smiling now, and Augusto ended its life with a single strike.
As he walked out of the ring, his fury overwhelming his triumph, Ángel stopped him.
“This is Diodoro Canorea of the Royal Maestranza of Seville. He is missing a matador for the feria of San Miguel in four weeks.”
“No,” Canorea said, “your alternativa to graduate to full matador. You are ready young man.”
* * *
All of Augusto’s life had led to the moment he marched onto the sand with the gold braid on his jacket and leggings glittered in the bright sun. To his left was the great Luis Miguel Dominguín, who had been present at the death of Manolete – and who would act as godfather to him in the ceremony of his promotion – and to his right a young matador called Gregorio Sanchéz, who would bear witness.
As they stopped in front of the box of the president to salute him, he heard the voice of Ángel behind him.
“Look to your right. The stand just to the right of the Gate of the Prince, front row.”
He looked, and there were his cousins, waiting for him to fail. And with their presence any fear he had been feeling evaporated leaving only hard anger. Ángel, standing just behind, watched the colour flow into his Maestro’s face and smiled.
* * *
From the inside it seemed to him the bull was like a horse he was leading by the reins, but from the outside it looked like he was commanding an avalanche of muscle and horn. The bull brushed the silk of his clothing with the points of its horns as it sought the muleta, which remained ever just outside its reach, again and again.
Augusto went through the dance-book of passes, and his inner sense of beauty combined with his outer sense of control, all to the punctuated rhythm of twelve thousand chanted ‘olés’ torn from the audience’s throats as though against their wills.
He had both audience and bull in his hands and he knew it.
He also knew that this particular bull would soon stop following the muleta so glibly, despite its still formidable strength and the high carriage of its head. He decided it was time to end the encounter. He walked to the barrier to hand over his aluminium caping sword and take the heavy steel blade.
“Are you sure?” Ángel asked, looking worried.
“Watch and learn.”
It took almost a minute after he placed the sword, but the bull fell and, when it did, Augusto saw its third eyelid tellingly close, and he turned to receive the roar of the crowd. Behind him, Ángel deftly slid a broad-bladed dagger between into the bull’s spine, mercifully and clinically disconnecting the beast from its life.
* * *
The great critic Corrochano wrote the next day that while Dominguín in his versatility had grown to the stature of another Joselito, this new young matador had the promise of a new Belmonte. “This Child of the Condor did not soar but hovered perfectly still in the face of these extraordinary winds, seeming to see the bull as though from a great height, even as its horns unpicked the stitching on his suit. He was truly the statue within the storm.”
Everyone had celebrated that night, even though Dominguín and Sanchéz were both booked to fight the next day. Then, a banderillero employed by the most junior matador for the next day went missing in the night. They asked Ángel to step in in his place and he agreed: for all his success, he still had barely enough money to eat.
The bulls were a mix and Augusto watched from the bullfighters’ alleyway around the ring with a splitting headache and all the distraction of success and fatigue and the fumes of a night of brandy. The third bull was from the ranch of Samuel Flores and it was far too smart for the matador and yet the crowd were still hoping for the successes of the day before.
Unable to dominate the animal, the matador opted to kill it early, having seen Augusto’s triumph with the same technique.
The matador went over the horns and put the sword in and, from where he stood, it looked to be in the right place. And after a time, the bull went down. However, Augusto saw something wrong about the angle from where he stood and felt something wrong as well.
Ángel approached the bull hesitantly from the other side with the dagger, and Augusto realised that Ángel had not seen what he had either. Augusto saw that not only was the nictating membrane of the third eyelid open, but the animal’s pupil was drawn tight in focus.
Augusto began to run.
The sequence of events was simple in its tragedy: the matador turned to the crowd which did not roar as they had for Augusto, but applauded all the same. This was the sound that created a final surge of life-force in the bull which rose towards its attacker’s back. Ángel’s years of training yielded an instinctive movement, using the full weight of his body to knock the matador out of the way of the charge. At exactly that moment, dressed in a business suit, Augusto vaulted the planks of the barrera into the ring. The bull, perceiving multiple attackers of which the matador – who was on the floor – was the least of them, switched target.
By the time Augusto had arrived to the fray, Ángel was being held aloft in the air with a look of extraordinary horror on his face. The horn of the bull had punched through his back and protruded a full three inches out of his stomach.
Augusto threw himself at the animal, pulling his brother-in-arms off the horn with one arm as he slapped the bull across the snout with the other. The bull, moving its horns in alternation like a boxer’s punches, put its left horn through Augusto’s right arm between radius and ulna and with a jerk snapped both bones. By then there was a melée of men around them with capes drawing the animal away.
“I remember.” Luis Miguel Dominguín said, looking over the wine bottles on the table, one hand on his wine glass, one hand on the arm of the woman at his side. “I was worried I would have another rival. Then I heard how severe the injury was. And I had not realised the banderillero Ángel was like a brother to you.”
“You Spanish amaze me,” the woman said, flicking her blonde fringe out of her eyes, “walking on to a stage is hard for me and that is just with actors, but to do it when your co-star wants to kill you.”
“The sand is a stage of tragedy, but the deaths are always real,” Luis Miguel intoned.
“Mademoiselle Schneider,” Augusto switching, as all three of them were, between French, Spanish and German, “if I may say, your performance as Empress Sissi was exquisite. My mother took me to see your films in the cinema in Algeciras.”
“Thank you,” she said, lowering her eyelashes as she did so. “And so now here you are in the Austrian Alps, working here in Hotel Villa Solitude. What brought you to Gastein?”
“After Ángel died and I lost the use of my arm, I went to my mother and told her I was retiring. She gave me some money and the address of my father’s family in Weimar. It turns out they were ‘bastards’ as well, in both senses of the word. Illegitimate descendants of the Princess of Saxe-Weimar and her chamberlain. They were poorer even than my mother but thought themselves Emperors. I discovered they were not my family either.”
“I am sorry,” Romy said.
“I drifted for a while. I always loved Schubert and read his account of this little town and the inspiration it gave to him. It affected him as Ronda affected Rilke. I arrived, and I was drinking too much back then. I became friends with the bartender at the Hotel Straubginger and once I ran out of money, he gave me a job. I was there until ’68.”
“Then?” Luis Miguel asked.
“A friend of yours, Don Luis Miguel, Madamoiselle Gardner came here while filming Mayerling. She recognised me and that was it, I had lost my anonymity. I had to move but did not want to leave Gastein. There was a vacancy here at the Solitude, and so here I stayed: I read, I play the piano, I walk in the mountains.”
“The Child of the Condor. That was your name wasn’t it.” Dominguín said. “I remember that bull well. A lot of Santa Coloma, I thought, and yet you turned it in on itself with true art. Remarkable.”
“So, here we are, hiding out from the press – hence we are not at the Straubinger – like you, and bored stiff. Some Spanish company would be good.” Luis Miguel carried on. “Do you ski? I’ve just learned and apparently I am quite good.”
“Yes. I learned in Granada as a child.”
“Well, you must join us tomorrow.”
“How can I say no?”
The skiing was good. Luis Miguel was more reckless than skilled and Romy the reverse. The sun was bright on the snow and the day was highlighted in the mind in a way Augusto had forgotten. Soon the light began to fade, and they rested in the café at the base of the Stubnerkogel drinking schnapps. Romy complimented Augusto on his skiing and she forgot that she had been speaking German for some time.
“What are you saying?” Luis Miguel asked in French.
“That August is good.”
Augusto could see the jealousy of the Great Maestro and was pleased by it.
“I have had more practice Don Luís. I have skied this slope a thousand afternoons, Don Luís only one.”
“And I have killed five thousand bulls and you but one, so we are equal. How about one last run?”
Romy shook her head.
“Not for me. I am tired.”
“How about you torero? If I can call you that after just one bulls.”
It was an offhand remark, perhaps not meant to sting as it did, but it had the effect of mocking laughter to a child.
“I killed two bulls that afternoon, Don Luís. One more run it is. Romy can judge who is the better skiier.”
* * *
Luis Miguel had improved already across the day and so had his utter fearlessness. The two skiers crossed one another’s paths as they vied for supremacy and Augusto knew they were at speeds beyond even his abilities.
The speed was why he had no time to react when it happened. Luis Miguel went down in a flurry of snow in front of him and Augusto hit what he thought was Luis Miguel and carried on down the hill. He came to a stop a hundred metres down the slope, not far from the café. He tried to get up, but he could not, and he knew something was wrong. He looked up and saw Luis Miguel frantically trying to come down the slope to him shouting in Spanish.
“Wait torero! I am there! Don’t move, it is too dangerous!”
That was what they shouted in the ring when a bull was loose and you were on the ground. It was strange to hear it in this place. Augusto could see there was something wrong with Don Luís’s skis: one was broken, only half there. Augusto looked down and saw where the other half of the broken ski was lodged in his abdomen.
He remembered Ángel and the look on his face when the horn was there, in the same place, and wondered if he had the same look on his face. And he remembered the gypsy woman who said he had a hole in the middle of him that she could see clear through his cold eyes.
Romy was shouting in German now running up the slope, trying to get help but he could not make out the words. Where was he? He tried to hold on to the wound to slow the bleeding, but it was useless he knew. He was too far from hospital. Was he was too far from home?
Was he in the bullring he wondered? Where were his team? Where was Ángel? Perhaps they were trying to get the bull away from him. It was strange how the sand felt wet and cold. His vision was failing, and he looked up and saw a bird hovering above, buffeted by winds but angling and reangling its wings to remain stationary. It was looking at him, he thought. He had to go home, he thought.
ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON is an English author, playwright, journalist and amateur bullfighter. He has written for The Times, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, The Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, Condé Nast Traveler and GQ and in Spanish for ABC. He appeared in ¡Hola! and Tatler as well as on the BBC, and CNN and, Al-Jazeera.
Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (Profile Books, 2011) was a finalist for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award (2nd Edition out soon.)
His second book, The Bulls Of Pamplona, was published by Mephisto Press in 2018, with a preface by the Mayor of Pamplona, and contributions including John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest and Beatrice Welles, daughter of Orson. (Amazon UK here, US here, France here, Spain here, Germany here.)
His short story collection, The Feldkirch Crossing & Other Fictions (Mephisto Press, 2021), includes the original English version of his story “Les Invincibles” which was a finalist for The Hemingway Prize in 2016. (Amazon UK here, US here, France here, Spain here, Germany here.)
With endless thanks to Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, Juan José Padilla, Adolfo Suárez Illana, Ángel Luis Carmona, Lucía Dominguín, Enrique Moreno de la Cova Maestre y sus hijos and the late great Félix Moreno de la Cova Maestre y sus hijos, Samuel Flores, Álvaro Domecq Romero and the late, great Juan Pedro Domecq Solís for all their kindnesses and their hospitality. And to my fiancée, Klarina Pichler, for her endless patience and boundless love, who is braver than us all.
Finally, in memory of my brother Jules William Fiske Harrison, who died skiing, and my friend Prince Georg-Constantin von Saxe-Weimar who died riding.
Good Morning Alexander
First and foremost, so sad reading about your brother and the friend. Praying for their souls to rest in peace.
And then, it is unique opportinity for me to write a reply to a popular writer like you, on your article.
Now, coming to the artice. I hate Bullfighting, where the innocent animal is killed treacherously, for entertainment. I wish, at least one day, let the Bulls be the spectators and Metadors, with a Human from other side.
But your article is very well written with clean script and I love reading it and enjoyed the literary part in it.
Thanks for sharing.
Regards and blessings
Uma Maheswar Nakka