Before long, I had distractedly lowered myself to my kitchen floor and opened the spine of the paperback to a random page, to start reading the book in earnest. And this – I swear – was the very first sentence I read:
“He has a face as gloomy as a third-class funeral on a rainy day.”
Manolete was ugly. He was remarkably ugly – by which I mean people couldn’t help but notice how ugly he was. They kept taking hit after hit at the brooding, twisted ugliness of his face. It only took a handful of pages of the biography to realize that Manolete’s conspicuous ugliness seemed to be a defining characteristic of his personality. He was ugly like Einstein was a genius, like Gandhi was non-violent, like Jeff Bezos is rich.
The peculiarity of her appearance worried everyone. Even people who adored Manolete have always managed to tack on a free cheap photo over how obnoxious his face was. Writers called him “the tired-looking” or a “popeyed, chinless, ill-bodied, painfully and barely dignified man”, or “the grim-faced, hawk-nosed Manolete” or simply “Old Big Nose” .
The more I read about Manolete, the more I had the impression that this man’s face triggered a sort of insult reflex in other human beings. One morning I left the biography on my coffee table, and my daughter – she was 6 at the time and knew nothing about the book or why I was reading it – saw the portrait on the cover as she passed and announced, “I I can’t believe they made a book about someone so ugly!
Stranger still, Manolete’s ugliness seemed to be a very specific strain of ugliness, one that communicated sadness and discouragement. Her long, curved face has been described as “tragic”. The New York Times wrote that he possessed “a face so solemn, gaunt, and impassive that he sometimes seems twice his age”, and another observer noted that “his wide, sad, heavy-lidded eyes hinted at the knowledge of terrors that the rest of us could only imagine. That aura of despondency was actually part of Manolete’s appeal. He had arrived at an unconventional style of bullfighting that was minimal and almost apathetic. He dragged himself into the arena without any flair, then repeatedly waved the bull beside him with his cape while standing straight as a toothpick, his facial expression never changing from the sullen, indifferent one he always wore. said Norman Mailer, the crowds were “so agitated by the man’s deep grief that the smallest movement produced the greatest emotion. In a way, the dissonance between Manolete’s affect and the mad exploits he ‘ he was performing created a kind of alchemical beauty. His style was based on this contrast – this “beautiful ugliness”, as Conrad put it. “He was by nature a melancholic man, and this sadness was clearly reflected in his art,” explained another writer. “But it was an artist’s sadness, a sadness tinged with languor and a sadness against which his art stood out in high relief in a quite extraordinary way.”
I knew next to nothing about bullfighting when I received this first Manolete book, and to be honest, I resisted learning more about the sport than necessary because it seems so cruel. Yet here was a man doing his job without any of the clichéd, invincible bravery I had associated with matadors, but rather with a look of resignation and unease, even victimization: a second animal sent into this ring for trivial pleasure of a paying audience, stuck all alone behind the unknowable stamp of his face. Apparently, at the start of each bullfighting season, Manolete felt stings of pain behind his eyes, as if he had walked into a dusty room. But there was no dust. “It must be fear,” he confessed.
I thought about it while making eye contact with myself in all those old photos. I couldn’t help but wonder why this random matador had come out of history, through this portal on the wall of a restaurant, to reach me here in the present – what inscrutable information he could carry, if his life and his face had anything to do with mine.
Manuel Laureano Rodriguez Sánchez was born in Córdoba on July 4, 1917 and nearly died of pneumonia when he was 2 years old. At the age of 5, he lost his father. From then on, he will spend his childhood clinging to his mother, who will spoil him.