Pamplona is gearing up for the Fiesta, the annual festival of “the running of the bulls,” made internationally famous when Ernest Hemingway set his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises – also called Fiesta – there. The 8 day homage to San Fermin kicks off on the 6th, and the city is preparing for the influx of tourists from every other corner of Spain and the earth. The giant big wheel is in place, the funfair setting up, temporary bathrooms have been trucked in, the carpenters are fixing the barriers along the streets in preparation for the stampede, fences are being placed around decorative park gardens and potentially dangerous city walls, bars and shops are stocking up on booze and grub, as are citizens, and, most importantly, the access permit for my car to drive through the pedestrianised old town has arrived!
As a writer, writing in the English language, and living in Pamplona, – probably the only one (and if there are more, hit me up and lets start a group!), I suppose I am to a certain extent expected, if not actually obliged, to mention the festival that is about to kick off here, which Papa made so famous all those years ago.
As a fan of Hemingway, I am delighted to live here, and to be able to experience the festivals each year, and in perfect comfort, too – anyone who’s been here will have seen the extremes that some visitors go to, sleeping rough in the parks, if they sleep at all. While I don’t have views of the Encierro route, I have friends who do and usually get an invite once a year, and I live just a hundred yards from the Hotel Perla where he used to stay, and I’m sure he strolled past my door back in the day, when there were horses stabled downstairs from my apartment. I have written I’ve written poems and parts of my novels in the cafe Iruña, where he wrote himself, and I am actually writing this post sitting in the Hemingway corner of said café, though I usually write at home nowadays.
I was a fan of Hemingway even before ever visiting Pamplona, and it was exciting to follow in his footsteps. He did a lot of things that I like to do, too. I am not a good angler, I must confess, and war holds no attraction to me in any way shape or form, nor do I wish to have more than one wife, and of course I hope to be in control of my suicidal tendencies as a pensioner. But I like to fish, to hunt, to travel. I had read most of his novels and stories before moving to Madrid years ago, and Death in the Afternoon helped me understand the reason why I was fascinated by the bullfights. I also love to write, of course, though I have long since stopped trying to write a sentence like him. I have my style and it’s basically splurting words and hoping the editor doesn’t want to cut too many. One of these extra bits that will probably get cut, is a tangential short story I invented as part of a novel, Five Days on Ballyboy Beach, which will be published later this year. It concerns the hero, who had come to the festivals with a friend to run in front of the bulls, finding the experience both frightening and exciting – a ludicrous enterprise to be taking part in yet at the same time impossible to pass up, or leave once entered upon.
But of course, most people who go to Pamplona and even those who run the bulls don’t feel such sensations because they are too drunk to realise the danger they are in (and the drunks still get in among the throngs of runners despite the efforts of the police to prevent them – they might not be falling down, but they wouldn’t get into the driver’s seat of a car…) or just too ignorant to know that is going on. I could tell stories of the idiocy I’ve seen, but there will only be more this year.
There are two things that are clear to me living here year round, and having attended more fiestas than Hemingway ever got to. One is that if Hemingway never came here, he’d still have written the Sun also Rises. It would have had some other festival as the setting – but Pamplona is, at the end, fairly incidental to the story; he could have set it in any other festival in Spain or stayed in Paris just as easily, and it would have been just as good a novel.
And if Hemingway never came here I’d still be living here. I’d still be a great fan, still love the bullfights, but my wife would still be from here, and I’d still have fallen in love with her, and our life’s journey would still have pointed us back here to settle our family. I’d just enjoying more locally -focused festivals every July.
Don’t get me wrong: Pamplona is a lovely town, and San Fermin is the best party on the planet. I encourage everyone to come at least once. But if it wasn’t so famous the locals might be able to actually run with the bulls instead of battle with the throngs of tourists on a one-day trip to stand like sheep on the street dressed in a stupid t-shirt the tour company game them while the bulls go by… (Full disclosure: I only ran once and don’t intend to run again, and you can enjoy the festivals immensely without ever even smelling a bull never mind seeing one.)
And if you are coming to town this summer – whether for San Fermin or on your way along the Camino de Santiago – then let me know and look me up. I’m the guy who cycles round town (seemingly too fast, but it’s all under control, folks) with the WWF (don’t forget they get 10% of my royalties!) stickers on the back of the child seat! I won’t be cycling much during the fiesta (when you see the crowds you’ll see why), but there’s a black and white cover of Leaving the Pack on my building… If you have Leaving the Pack on your ipad or whatever, I’ll give you a signed cover (3×5″)postcard, and you can buy me a beer!