Emotions running high in Pamplona

Revellers wearing the traditional San Fermín red scarves walk past the bust of Hemingway in Pamplona.
Revellers wearing the traditional San Fermín red scarves walk past the bust of Hemingway in Pamplona. / AFP
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  • Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961) Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (1927)

It changed my life and made me want to write and explore the world.” So says American bull runner and author Bill Hillman of the novel that put a small Spanish town and its annual bull-running fiesta well and truly on the world stage.

In the minds of the million visitors who now descend on the town every July for a week of dissipation and danger on its cobbled old streets, Ernest Hemingway is synonymous with Pamplona and its San Fermín fair. And that can be entirely attributed to this short but powerful novel - a novel that has changed many lives in the decades since its publication. As a tribute to the huge impact Hemingway and ‘Fiesta’ have had on Pamplona and San Fermín, an austere bronze bust of the author now stands outside the town’s 20,000-seat bullring.

Hemingway was a devoted ‘aficionado’ of the bullfight and wrote about it throughout his life: ‘Death in the Afternoon’, his 1932 study of the spectacle and tradition that Garcia Lorca called “the last serious thing in the modern world”, is one of the finest such works we have in English. Jake Barnes, Fiesta’s American protagonist and somewhat laconic narrator, is, in this sense, the Hemingway figure of the novel: like a true ‘aficionado’ - and like his creator - he takes a learned interest in the bulls themselves as well as the spectacle in which they perform.

San Fermín is the ultimate festival for ‘aficionados’, featuring as it does the lethal early-morning bull runs through the streets - ‘encierros’ - and the evening bullfights. It is for this reason that Jake - who leads a rather dislocated, aimless existence in Paris the rest of the year - is called back every July to Pamplona for his annual fix (even though he doesn’t participate in the ‘encierros’ himself).

Jake is a moody, troubled character whose past is only ever briefly alluded to: indeed, what’s left unsaid in this novel is just as important as what is explicitly stated. And it is in his past, one senses, that the key to understanding Jake’s obsessive passion for the bulls lies.

Fighting on the Italian front in the First World War, Jake was badly injured. He feels emasculated by his injury and therefore only speaks of it with difficulty and reticence, but we learn enough about it to understand why. Undressing before the mirror in his Paris apartment before heading to Pamplona, he gives us our first clue: “Of all the ways to be wounded. I suppose it was funny.”

He remembers a colonel coming to see him while he was convalescing in hospital: “You, a foreigner, an Englishman (any foreigner was an Englishman),” the colonel told him, “have given more than your life”. Later, in Pamplona, a friend says he’s heard a rumour that Jake is impotent; “No, I just had an accident” replies Jake. An entire world of loss is encapsulated in that one stung, embarrassed response.

It is a loss that Jake can usually deal with in Pamplona better than anywhere else, where he completely immerses himself in bull culture for a week of every year. In the town’s capacious bullring, Jake takes vicarious pleasure in displays of machismo he feels his terrible injury has placed forever out of his reach; and it is in the complex emotional reactions caused by the bullfight that he seeks release from pain caused by a different kind of wound.

The great love of Jake’s life is a woman he can never be with. Lady Brett Ashley, a beautiful, restless English aristocrat who is part of the gang of expats Jake belongs to in Paris, loves Jake in return - but her voracious sexual appetite and his wartime injury mean they can never be lovers. This is the central tragedy of the novel, introduced in its opening pages as Brett and Jake take a sad, frustrated cab ride around nighttime Paris. The bullfight plays its own role in their doomed love, when Brett falls for the young matador Pedro Romero in Pamplona.

Emotions running high in Pamplona

Bullfights cause strange emotions, or strange mixtures of emotions, unlike those caused by any other art or spectacle. I refer to it thus because it is not a sport: ‘bullfighting’ is a convenient but entirely inaccurate translation of what the Spanish call a ‘corrida de toros’, or ‘running of the bulls’. “We had that disturbed emotional feeling that always comes after a bullfight,” Jake reflects as they leave the bullring one evening, “and the feeling of elation that comes after a good bullfight.” Combined with these potent emotions is Jake’s consuming jealousy of Romero’s possession of the woman he loves - an affair that reinforces, in the worst way possible, his sense of masculine inadequacy.

Fiesta’s greatness is not just owed to the fact that Hemingway perfectly captures those mysterious post-bullfight emotions and the hedonistic atmosphere of San Fermín. It is because he blends these with the fraught currents that run through Jake and between Jake and Brett, making for a brooding, edgy read that’s as sad as it is life-affirming. I read it in a single, captivated sitting and almost expected to walk out of my apartment to find 1920s Paris or Pamplona on my doorstep, all their decadent, romantic glory. was surprised to find that I was still in modern-day Granada, such is the extraordinarily evocative power of this iconic novel.