Sunday, July 19, 2009

San Fermin

This article was published today in the Madrid daily "El Mundo"

It was only when I first visited Pamplona in July of 2008 that I finally understood the impact that the Fiesta of San Fermin must have had on my grandfather’s work. Of course, I had read The Sun Also Rises (1926) and had heard various accounts of the Sanfermines from family members who had been there, but the reality of the Fiesta far surpasses any description of it. The explosion of color and energy that starts with the Txupinazo and continues with the beauty and the pathos of the encierros and corridas is certainly unique in Europe and, as far as I know, in the rest of the world.

Ernest came to the Fiesta nine times and most of these years were in what I would call the prime of his writing career, from 1923 to 1931. It’s true that he wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls in 1940 and The Old Man And The Sea in 1952, but most Hemingway scholars consider his best work to be the short stories that he wrote in the 1920’s and that of the novels he published in that period The Sun Also Rises or Fiesta, stands apart from the others in terms of style and theme. Indeed, like many of his short stories, The Sun Also Rises is subtly subversive. Things are not always what they seem. On one level we have a hero (Jake Barnes) and a heroine (Lady Brett Ashley) who seem to reaffirm the classic stereotypes of men and women, but in reality it is Brett who acts like a man, who is aggressive sexually and who can drink with the best of them. Jake is a wounded war veteran and was sexually emasculated in a plane crash on the Italian front. He is the submissive personality in the story, the feminine foil for Brett as she seduces all the men she encounters.

As stories go it is not exactly what you’d expect from my grandfather, given his image as a womanizer and all-around macho-man, but then Ernest was much more complicated than most people give him credit for. Like any true artist he did his best to express the stories that were inside him, to give form and texture to the emotions and events that he experienced and I can’t help but think that the Fiesta de San Fermin was fundamental to his art in that it provided the perfect mix of contradictions, of good and bad, ugly and beautiful, comic and tragic.

While the Fiesta is, in fact, the celebration of a saint, San Fermin, most foreigners are aware of Pamplona because of the running of the bulls. Every year television crews from around the world film the encierros and even if you’ve never read Fiesta or Michener’s The Drifters you will probably have seen at least once in your life a video of this crazy run in a small town in northern Spain where supposedly sane men decide to risk their lives racing in front of a pack of fighting bulls, each of which weighs upwards of 500 kilos.

Many young Americans, Canadians, Brits and Australians see their participation in the running of the bulls as a kind of right of passage to manhood. Indeed, while I’ve never run myself, I’ve spoken to many at the fiesta who have and this year I was even asked to console a young, slightly drunk, US Marine who was on leave from Iraq and who had come to Pamplona like many other men his age to test his courage against the bulls but who in that crucial moment had found his courage lacking. He was packed in with hundreds of other runners near Mercaderes when six Toros Bravos came thundering through the square on their way to the Curva at Estafeta and he had found himself at a kind of crossroads in his relatively short life. He could stay in the square and probably get hit by a bull that was about to over-run him or dive under the barrier and save his own skin. He chose the latter and when I saw him in the afternoon at a bar just to the left of La Perla hotel he still couldn’t reconcile himself to his perceived dĂ©faillance.

He was about six feet tall, well built and with the typical crew cut of an American soldier. I introduced myself and told him that no matter what the outcome of his run had been, just by deciding to put himself in harm’s way he had already been through something that my grandfather had never experienced. Contrary to what most people might think, Ernest never ran with the bulls. There are photos of him playing with the cows in the plaza after the encierro, but he was not a runner.

The soldier was surprised to hear this from me, yet he still could not get over the fact that he had been afraid when he should have been courageous. I told him that there was nothing to be ashamed of and asked him what he would have done if a large truck was about to run him over on a road? Would he stand his ground and get killed or would he step aside?

“I’d step aside.” He said.

“Obviously, because you don’t want to die.” And as I finished the sentence it occurred to me that everything about this conversation was highly surreal. There I was counseling this 23-year-old Marine whose day job consisted in dodging IED’s (improvised explosive devices) and in general policing a people, the Iraqis, who at best wanted to have nothing to do with him and his army and at worst wished him dead. How could someone, I thought, who did this for a living be afraid of the bulls? But afraid he’d been and ashamed he remained until I reminded him that tomorrow was another day and that the bulls would run again that if he really felt he needed to prove something then he’d have his chance.

Of course, as the events of this year has shown, if ever a reminder was needed, running with the bulls is an extremely dangerous activity and should never be taken likely. Even the most experienced runners can have a bad day and end up in the hospital. A Scottish friend of mine who has been running for over twenty years fell down and banged his head and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance for CAT scan. It was the first time that he’d run the Curva at Estafeta in 137 runs and the first time that he’d ever fallen.

The young man from Madrid who died was also an experienced runner and was from a family where his father and his grandfather, natives of Navarra, had also been runners. From what I’ve been told he carefully prepared every encierro that he ever did. He would go to bed early the night before, would never dream of showing up on the course drunk and at 27 was in his prime. Still, the encierro is such that all it takes is one moment of bad luck and all the experience and agility of a young man means nothing.

After his death and the other serious injuries in this year’s Fiesta, some have suggested that the encierros be restricted to those who know what they are doing and who run with the bulls having properly prepared themselves for the task. In short that it be restricted to “professional runners”. I, however, think that the encierro should be left as it is, i.e. open to any sober adult who wants to run it.

Those who participate are volunteers. No one is forcing them to do this, just as no one forces a boxer to enter the ring with an opponent who could, in theory at least, kill him. And what of skydiving, or even surfing, or road cycling? In Italy I practiced amateurial level road racing and occasionally there were riders who would fall off their bikes on steep descents in the Italian Alps and die. It was a always a rare event but you knew that there was a risk and tried to race as safely as possible, still life is full of surprises and bad luck does happen. I remember that I cycled because I loved the sport and loved the feeling of rushing down a mountain at 70 kilometers an hour on two very thin tires.

I didn’t want to get hurt but at the same time whenever I heard about people who had fallen badly I never thought about quitting. It was just a part of my sport and I imagine that those who run in the encierro feel the same way about theirs.

I remember once asking a bullfighter why he kept going back to fight, in spite of his many serious injuries and he told me, “John, death is all around us, and we are going to die no matter what we do eventually. The important, though, thing is how we live our lives.” Now perhaps I’m wrong but I think that this is also the essence of the Fiesta, how you live your life. My grandfather understood this when he went there for the first time in 1923 and it is something that I was able to see with my own eyes 85 years later.


Laurene said...

John: now I know why Espanha had a lot a surrealist artists like Dali or Bunuel.

It´s better write a surrealistic novel about the Fiest. GarcĂ­a Marquez magical realism one!

John Hemingway said...

Lucio! Yes, that soldier was a bit strange;-) A few days I saw him again, happy as could be, totally covered in wine, stinking, and not the least bit worried about the bulls!


Laurene said...

Hi, John.

I was wondering: does anyone already run -- drunk -- from those bulls? Somedoby not mentally ill --and died?

John Hemingway said...

Lucio, sure there are plenty of people who are drunk and then go to run with the bulls. The police try to weed out the worst of them, but I'm sure they don't get all of them. The one who died on the 10th of July wasn't drunk though.


Unknown said...

If you take part in Sanfermines, you understand a part of spanish way of life and you don't need to justify. All those who come to Pamplona during la feria can feel it.

Anonymous said...


What an interesting post! I met a similar, slightly older ex-military American man last year.

I am in London and missing the running, so I found myself trawling images and stories on the web until I found this. I ran last year - twice - as part of research for my book 'Into The Arena' which is about my year in Spain last year with the current crop of matadors and breeders (It comes out in February). Your grandfather's shadow is ridiculously long in this world. Most of my friends speak of him as their grandparents knew him - Eduardo Miura, Samuel Flores, Cayetano Rivera Ordonez etc. Anyway, I thought I should drop you a note. I myself am training to kill a novillo for the final chapter of my book... do swing by my blog, The Last Arena. Kind regards, Alexander Fiske-Harrison