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A Young Man's Homage to the Torero : MATADOR by Barnaby Conrad (Capra Press: $18.95; 250 pp., illustrated)

November 27, 1988|Herbert Kretzmer | Kretzmer, former drama critic of the London Daily Express and TV critic of the London Daily Mail, wrote the lyrics of the Royal Shakespeare Company's musical hit "Les Miserables . " and

Barnaby Conrad's short, taut novel about the final hours in the life of a great Spanish bullfighter was all but swamped on its first appearance in 1952 by the kind of rewards most young writers only dream about--Book of the Month, Reader's Digest Book Club, front page of the New York Times Book Review, 50 weeks on the National Best Seller List, the enthusiastic endorsement of John Steinbeck ("My favorite novel of the year").

Since then, "Matador" has reportedly sold three million copies in 20 languages, to the continuing anguish, no doubt, of Random House, which had turned it down. "A terrible mistake was made!" wired Random House's Bennett Cerf as "Matador" soared. "Please send us your next book!"

But Conrad was never to repeat the success of "Matador." It is a singular novel, a young man's inspired, once-in-a-lifetime act of homage and hero-worship, written with the authority of a knowledgeable aficionado who had always moved freely in the society of professional toreros and who had himself performed with no little distinction in the bullrings of Spain and South America.

"Matador" is an insider's guide to the extraordinary and anachronistic spectacle of the Spanish national fiesta, which, confounding regular predictions of decline and decay, has survived more or less intact into the 20th Century.

Conrad's novel is a blow-by-blow description of the last day on earth of Pacote, a proud and celebrated torero goaded out of retirement by an arrogant new rival. With Pacote we live through 12 climactic hours as he struggles to contain his fear and his premonitions of calamity.

We find him in his Seville hotel bedroom awaiting the comforting company of his manager and friends, who will take his mind off the duel to come:

They'd be here soon. It would be better, in a way, when they got here. It was always bad in the morning because that was when you were you. Later it was better because you suddenly became somebody else and something else.

Well, yes, it is a bit like Hemingway, but then all authors tend to sound like old Papa when they write about bullfighting and its practitioners. Hemingway created the style and the vocabulary, and there seems to be no getting away from his giant shadow entirely. But too much can be made of this. Conrad is his own man, and his detailed description of the fateful corrida that occupies the latter half of the novel is a splendid and sustained literary performance in any terms, as good as, and sometimes better than, Don Ernesto himself. It is vivid stuff, throbbing with excitement and peril.

The corrida ends with Pacote, in a delirium of courage, paying the ultimate penalty and passing instantly into martyrdom and legend. The description of his death is a precise, factual reconstruction of the death of Manolete, the king of matadors, killed by a Miura bull in August of 1947. Even the authentic dying words of Manolete are given, unchanged, to the doomed hero of Conrad's novel:

Pacote lay there breathing hard. Then he said: "Doctor, I can't feel anything in my left leg!"

"That's all right," said the doctor. "You'll be well in no time. You'll be walking around in a month."

"Doctor," said Pacote in a frightened voice. "Are my eyes open? I can't see!"

He half rose up on the table and then fell back.

The early sections of the novel are not without blemish. The bullfighter's avaricious mistress is presented as a lurid, overwritten, under-examined portrait of heartlessness and whoredom. And the insensitive American reporter who interviews the bullfighter a few hours before his death ("What does it feel like to have a horn go into you?") is an unconvincing B-movie caricature dragged into the narrative for no better reason, it seems, than to allow the author to sound off against the voyeurism of some non-Spanish aficionados.

Such falls from grace are perhaps unavoidable in a novel that confines its action to a few brief hours. "Matador" allows itself no space, no time, to explore the subtler qualifications of human character. It is a story composed almost entirely of peaks and highlights. It is from this concentration that the novel derives its drive and energy. But a price must be paid for such singleness of purpose.

As a bonus the book includes the author's well-known and much-anthologized account of the death of Manolete. All in all, this is a welcome new edition of an extraordinary novel that took the United States by storm 36 years ago and may well engage and excite a new generation of readers.

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