By John Affleck
I’ve fashioned a makeshift costume out of light khakis, a white t-shirt, and a wild west red bandanna. With me in the line at the bus station are young Spaniards, their uniforms exact: white trousers, white tunics, and the official San Fermin scarf, neatly tied in front and draped across the back. Inexplicably, I’m at the front of the line, a solitary American in questionable attire, and as such am duly ignored. They play at bull fighting, their index fingers as horns, and I can’t help but think of Hemingway’s short story, “The Capital of the World,” in which two young cafe waiters tie knives to a chair to simulate a bull, until one of them is fatally gored.
The bus leaves at eight in the evening. The trip from Barcelona to Pamplona takes seven hours or so, and no one, including myself, gets any sleep. Commandeered by these San Fermin pilgrims, it’s a party bus, and rules about smoking, drinking, drug use, eating, and disturbing fellow passengers are happily disregarded. We arrive in the early morning to find no battery of waiting loved ones, no old women hawking accommodations. I follow the throng into the midnight streets. Fireworks burst overhead, their exploding colors raining down and painting the ubiquitous suits of white in dazzling, dancing rainbows. I head for the bright lights and carnival sounds.
The carnival is a virtual bullfight. Young men snort and paw the earth, making horns of their fingers and eyeing their adversary, another youngster dangling a red scarf. The bull charges, the matador pirouettes to the applause of onlookers. I watch from the outskirts, drinking a beer and eating the Spanish version of a hot dog. Occasionally I catch an eye and join in the chant: “San Fermin! San Fermin!” A man ducks to lift me on his shoulders, and I am carried above the crowd until he sets me down and charges a would-be matador. “San Fermin!” I say, and raise my hand in the sign of the bull: index finger and pinkie extended as horns, the remaining three digits pressed together to represent the snout.
As the sun starts to rise, the revelers start to fall. Wherever they are, they simply crumble into slumber, until, by dawn, every patch of grass is obscured in red and white. The cafs are filling, too; filling with those who’ve sworn off sleep for the week and prime the adrenaline with triple espressos. The bulls are running soon, and they want to be ready.
At the massive bull ring I shell out 800 pesetas for a seat in the sol. Sombre costs nearly twice as much. The ticket admits me to see the running of the bulls, then the bullfight later in the afternoon. Originally, the Fiesta de San Fermin was the first showing of the bulls, a sort of pre-season event. Matadors, breeders, and aficianados like Hemingway came to check out the latest in the venerable old blood lines, talk with the insiders, and spend a week thinking of nothing but bulls. After Hemingway, San Fermin became the tourist draw it is today, attracting over 40,000 people to the small city of Pamplona every year. I have the sense that the true aficianados now stay far away from the insanity that San Fermin has become.
Still, much has not changed. In his bullfighting memoir, A Dangerous Summer, Hemingway remarks, Pamplona is no place to bring your wife.” His reasons are the best description of those seven days.
The odds are all in favor of her getting ill, hurt or wounded or at least jostled and wine squirted all over her, or of losing her; maybe all three. It’s a man’s fiesta and women at it make trouble, never intentionally of course, but they nearly always make or have trouble. I wrote a book on this once. Of course if she can talk Spanish so she knows she is being joked with and not insulted, if she can drink wine all day and all night and dance with any group of strangers who invite her, if she does not mind things being spilled on her, if she adores continual noise and music and loves fireworks, especially those that fall close to her or burn her clothes, if she thinks it is sound and logical to see how close you can come to being killed by bulls for fun and for free, if she doesn’t catch cold when she is rained on and appreciates dust, likes disorder and irregular meals and never needs to sleep and still keeps clean and neat without running water; then bring her. You’ll probably lose her to a better man than you.
I’ve got a ticket because of Him, of course, because I’ve read that book, The Sun Also Rises, because I, too, have come from Paris, because almost more than the bulls I want to see Him, the great bronze Papa in front of the ring. Because I want to smell the dust and drink the wine and sleep in the streets he slept in. Because if Jesus watches over Rio, then Papa’s got his eternal eye on Pamplona, at least for this week in June, and I want him to catch a glimpse of me.
Weighted with backpack and camera, I opt to watch. Hem never ran, but also sat in the stands, remarking on the bravery and stupidity of the kids, waiting for the real bullfight to begin. Hours early, the ring is already full. Chants echo from sol to sombre. San Fermin has no real schedule, but I check my watch, wondering at what time the bulls are unleashed, setting off the mad dash into the stadium. Where we wait, the cautious, the skeptical, the cowards.
It starts with a silence. Someone has heard the rumbling of a thousand feet. Inside the ring the din hushes, and soon we can all hear it: thunder that does not diminish, but grows stronger. Squeals of fear and delight. Cheers from those watching along the street. Then, like atoms in a chain reaction, those at the front of the chase burst into the ring, veering off in random directions and scampering over the walls to safety. Next comes the bulk of the mob, who race to the walls but choose to stay inside the ring, awaiting the bulls they have not yet seen. Finally come those who showed up early for the places closest to the starting gates, those who started the mad dash when they saw the eyes of the bulls flare as they burst from the cages. They are the adrenaline junkies, propelled forward by frantic leering glances over their shoulders, tossing insults at the hulking beasts. When they enter the stadium they simply turn, going toe to toe with their pursuers. Their game now is to steal the flowers from the horns.
Piquadors are on hand to save such men from themselves. They ride horses and carry the long spears, ready to distract any bull with too clear a bead. Gradually the full-sized bulls are led out of the ring, replaced by young bulls with short horns, perfect for playing matador. They have neither the wile nor the malevolence to do real harm. For more than an hour the ring is full with hundreds of youngsters, taking turns with the half dozen half-sized animals. Everyone is laughing, even the young men who have mis-timed their evasions and are tossed effortlessly in the air.
The chaos gradually tapers off and assumes a sort of order. The bulls gather in the center of the ring, snorting and pawing the ground, while along the perimeter wait their tormentors. They pant and giggle. Occasionally a bull rushes, triggered by a flash of color or a sound, and the ragged line of red and white opens. The bulls have learned to turn away before ramming the wall, and they retreat back to the fold.
When the young bulls are finally led from the ring, I leave as well. I want to find Him. I circumnavigate the arena twice, then finally ask in my simple Spanish, “Donde esta Hemingway?“
“Hemingway?” responds my guide. He spreads his arms to indicate ubiquity. He points in every direction, labeling each as “Hemingway, Hemingway, Hemingway.” He nods at me with narrowed eyes, as if to ask, “Do you understand?”
It’s the street, I discover, as I consult my map. Avenida de Hemingway, one of Pamplona’s main streets, runs past the arena. And at the end of the street, in the square at the main entrance, is my bronze, bearded Papa. His head, set atop an enormous slab of granite, strikes me as quite small, even meek, with eyes that still seem to be studying the scene. This was not the great Papa who could fill a bar with his bravado and his boasts; no, this was the writer still humbled by his craft, whose eyes never stopped searching for truth, who knew that in this world he was merely a reporter of what truth he could find.
Back inside the arena the real bullfight begins. There are no colors like it; the matador’s costume, the streamers on the piques, even the blood, blaze in the July heat. I join the cries of “ole” at the good passes and cheer the courage of matador and bull alike. It is a good bull, strong and hot-blooded, and in death receives much respect. The death of the bull is an inevitability in the ring; if the matador fails the piquadors will come to his aid. I realize that it is the duty of the bull to accept that inevitability, and the duty of the matador to see that the bull is honored in death. While I am dazzled by the matadors magic, it is the doomed bull that enthralls me, for it has sensed its own demise. And I realize that in the ring Hemingway would not have donned the matador’s costume and strutted with his cape, but that he would have bent his head and pawed the ground, smelling in the distance his own death, and that he would have charged it full-bore.
John Affleck is a writer who currently makes his home in Boston.