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Trakas runs with the bulls in Pamplona

Dr. Deno Trakas turns family vacation into heart-pounding literary experience.

As we drove out of Madrid on our way to northern Spain, my daughter-in-law said,  “I just finished reading The Sun Also Rises, and what I want to know is why are we going to Pamplona?” 

Good question—why do a million people from all over the world go to this normally quiet city (population 200,000) every year in the second week of July?  Do they really run with bulls?  Are they really inspired by Hemingway’s first novel as so many say they are?  And if so, why?  After all, the characters in the book drink a lot and have some fun at the Fiesta of San Fermin, but much of the time they’re quarreling with each other, cheating on each other, punching each other, and in the end their friendships lie shattered like glass in the streets after an all-night bash.  Jake, the usually loyal and dependable protagonist modeled on Hemingway, betrays his Spanish friend Montoya, takes a swing at his American friend Robert, and at the end of the fiesta leaves Pamplona in disgust and goes to San Sebastian by himself, having decided he needs a vacation after his vacation.  When Brett, the woman he loves despite everything, wires him and asks him to rescue her in Madrid, he goes, but he has to drink three martinis and most of five bottles of wine to tolerate his final meeting with her.  So what’s the allure of Pamplona, and does the novel capture it accurately?  And does going to the fiesta shed light on the novel?

The characters begin to talk about going to Spain in Chapter 8, about a third of the way through the book.  It’s Jake’s trip in that he’s done it before and makes all the arrangements, and his plan is to go fishing in Burguete, Spain and then enjoy the fiesta in Pamplona.  Jake and his friend Bill leave Paris almost two weeks before the fiesta begins, and because their other friends don’t show up, their time in Burguete is idyllic: they walk through deep woods, fish in cold streams, eat lunch on sunny banks, take naps on soft grass, walk back to the inn for sumptuous meals, and sleep soundly at night (Jake sleeps well only when Brett isn’t around).  This trip is more spiritually satisfying for Jake than going to the cathedral where he tries to pray but gets distracted.  There are several religious and irreligious references in this section of the book.  For example, Jake and Bill perform a mock religious rite in which they “utilize” their wine as if in communion.  Another day they take a walk to the monastery at Roncesvalles and agree that it’s “a remarkable place,” but Bill says, “It isn’t the same as fishing, though, is it?”  From the monastery they see a pub across the street and go over and utilize a couple of bottles of wine (120).

All the main characters arrive in Pamplona in Chapter 13, in the middle of the narrative, and the rest of the action takes place there except for brief scenes in San Sebastian and Madrid.  Hemingway captures the Mardi Gras-like atmosphere well, and the contrast between the fishing trip and the fiesta is stark.  Jake enjoys the bullfights as much as he enjoyed the fishing, and he enjoys showing off his knowledge of bullfighting, but in Pamplona he’s excited and agitated, never calm, and he doesn’t sleep well.  They all stay in the Hotel Montoya in the central plaza (based on the Hotel Quintana, which is no longer a hotel), eat and drink in the cafes and bars (two of Hemingway’s favorites, the Iruña and the Txoko, are still there), sit on casks of wine with strings of garlic around their necks, sing and dance with the Spaniards, listen to the drums and pipes, watch the fireworks every night, drink more, watch the unloading of the bulls, the running of the bulls, and the bull fights, and some even try to participate in the religious ceremonies of the fiesta, although Jake admits that he’s a “rotten Catholic” (93) and Brett admits that she doesn’t have God—what she has instead of God is, near the end of the book, “not being a bitch” (220).

The characters have not come primarily for the encierro, the running of the bulls through the streets of the city that takes place every morning of the fiesta.  None of them participate in that event, not even Jake.  Opinions are mixed on whether or not Hemingway himself did.  The official website of the fiesta,, quotes Fernando Hualde’s book Hemingway: Cien Anos y Una Huella that says Hemingway ran but didn’t get close to the bulls.  But Ray Mouton, author of Pamplona: Running the Bulls, Bars, and Barrios in Fiesta de San Fermin, claims that the first American to run with the bulls in Pamplona was the U. S. Consul out of Barcelona in the late 1940s (145).  And Alexander Fiske-Harrison says in How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona, 2015 , “it is generally accepted that [Hemingway] never actually ran.  By generally accepted I mean by everyone except Hemingway himself.  While researching … I came across a front-page story by Hemingway in the 20 July 1924 edition of the Toronto Daily Star, with the wonderfully self-referential headline ‘Bull Gores Toronto Writer in Annual Pamplona Festival.’”  Fiske-Harrison asked Hemingway’s grandson about this, and John Hemingway answered, “‘Well, excuse the pun but I think there was a lot of bull in my grandfather’s dispatches to Toronto in the 20s.”  Ernest Hemingway did participate in the amateur fighting with young bulls with padded horns that follows the encierro every morning (there’s a photograph of it on the website, and Donald Stewart wrote about reluctantly joining him in the ring, and getting his ribs broken), and Hemingway loved to watch the professional bullfights in the afternoon, but John Hemingway is probably the only member of the family who has run with the bulls.

Hemingway went to Pamplona for the first time in 1923 on the advice of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas.  (Stein said the famous words, “You are all a lost generation,” that Hemingway used as one of the epigraphs of the novel, and she became the godmother of his first son.)  On one of his visits to their salon in Paris, they told him that some of the best bullfighting in the world took place just across the border of France and Spain in Pamplona.  Hemingway had written a sketch about a bullfighter before he ever saw one, and then he’d seen his first bullfight in Spain on a trip with novelist Robert McAlmon that spring, but he knew he needed more material to write the final sketches for his first book, in our time, and Pamplona might be just the place to get it.  Also, his first wife Hadley was pregnant, they were sure it would be a boy, and sure that bullfights would be good for their little torero in utero.

They loved the lively and unique celebrations of the Fiesta of San Fermin, and the bullfights that year were superb if bloody—five of the eight matadors were gored (all survived).  Perhaps the best of them, Nicanor Villalta impressed the Hemingways so much that they named their son John Hadley Nicanor (The Sun Also Rises is dedicated to him and his mother).  And the bullfighter called Maera performed so bravely with a sprained wrist that Hemingway described him with admiration in his book on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, and used him as the protagonist in one of the sketches in in our time.

He and Hadley returned to Pamplona the next year, 1924, and enjoyed themselves once again although Hemingway saw a man die during the running of the bulls.  But The Sun Also Rises is based primarily on their poorly conceived and badly cast visit to Pamplona in 1925.  Hemingway (clearly a model for Jake Barnes but with significant differences; for example, Jake is not married and his war wound is more incapacitating than Hemingway’s) invited Duff Twysden (the primary model for Brett Ashley), Pat Guthrie (Mike Campbell), Harold Loeb (Robert Cohn), Donald Stewart and Bill Smith (Bill Gorton) to join him and his wife for the fiesta (Baker 153).  As in the novel, the sexual chemistry was volatile since all the men were attracted to Duff, and she divided her affections among most of them.  The resulting tension would become the central conflict of the novel. 

This third visit to Pamplona was also disappointing to the Hemingway group because of the growing numbers of foreigners.  The book shows us that Montoya, the inn-keeper (modeled on Juanito Quintana), who shares his passion for bullfighting with Jake, complains that there’s an American woman in town who “collects” bullfighters (157).  And later, “Big motorcars from Biarritz and San Sebastian kept driving up ….  Sight-seeing cars came up, too.  There was one with twenty-five Englishwomen in it” (185).  Pamplona was becoming a tourist destination even before Hemingway published his novel in 1926, but there’s no doubt that Pamplona before The Sun Also Rises and Pamplona after it were quite different.  As a result of the fame and financial boon he brought, Hemingway is revered in the city: there is only one statue outside the bullring of Pamplona, and it’s not a bullfighter, war hero, or politician—it’s an American writer.

Hemingway has Jake describe in detail the unloading of the bulls and several of the bullfights, especially those featuring Pedro Romero, who takes his name from a famous Spanish bullfighter of the 18th century but was modeled on Cayetano Ordoñez, another contemporary bullfighter whom Hemingway admired.  Most of the other characters come to share Jake’s fascination with the bulls and bullfighters, and Brett falls in love with Romero, which brings the tension to a climax, so the author directs our attention there.

Surprisingly, Hemingway devotes only a few pages to the running of the bulls, the feature of the Fiesta of San Fermin that makes Pamplona famous.  Many other cities have fiestas to celebrate their saints, many other cities have bullfights, some other cities even allow their so-inspired citizens to run with the bulls through the streets, but no other place does it like Pamplona.

Jake describes the encierro for the first time as he watches from the balcony of Robert’s room on the first morning.  He’s seen it before and merely comments that a crowd runs down the street, followed by others who are “really running,” and then there’s a space, and then the bulls come (146-7).  One man falls and lies flat as the bulls pass (obeying the number one rule for running: if you fall, stay down—American Matthew Tassio did not obey this rule when he ran in 1995 and became one of the fifteen runners who have lost their lives since 1900). 

The main description of the encierro comes thirty pages later, and the context is significant because it comes at a moment of change: the fiesta is ending and friendships are ending.  Jake and his friends have had a terrible fight, Robert has beaten him up, and as he walks away from them to return to the hotel, he thinks that “everything looked new and changed” (174).  He feels as he did once when he came home from an out-of-town high school football game in which he had been kicked in the head.  He might have a mild concussion, but the change is more profound than fuzzy headedness, and it unfolds slowly through the denouement of the novel. Bill convinces him to see Robert, who is crying and miserable for the damage he’s done, and Jake accepts his apology, reluctantly shakes his hand, and says goodbye.  Jake goes to bed and in the morning wakes with a bad headache.  Nevertheless, he looks for the English girl who had joined their entourage because he’d promised to show her the encierro, and he’s a man of his word.  He can’t find her, but he goes alone and watches from behind the fence as the bulls run through the street: “They were going fast and gaining on the crowd … and as the bulls passed, galloping together, heavy, muddy-sided, horns swinging, one shot ahead, caught a man in the running crowd in the back and lifted him in the air.  Both the man’s arms were by his sides, his head went back as the horn went in, and the bull lifted him and then dropped him” (177).

In typical Hemingway fashion, Jake doesn’t share his emotional response to the goring; he just walks back to town and stops at the café for coffee and toast.  A waiter asks him if anything happened, and he says a man was badly gored.  The waiter says, “A big horn wound.  All for fun.  Just for fun.  What do you think of that?”  Jake answers, “I don’t know.”  A few minutes later some men come by and tell them the wounded man died, and the waiter says, “You hear?  Muerto.  Dead.  He’s dead.  With a horn through him.  All for morning fun.  Es muy flamenco,” suggesting that running with bulls is something that an Andalucian gypsy would do, but not a rational man.  And this time Jake says, “It’s bad” (179).

By “bad” Jake might mean it’s sad as any accidental death is sad, or it’s reckless and senseless as the waiter seems to believe, or it’s immoral because of its consequences for the man’s family.  Jake goes on to tell us that the man who died was 28, from a nearby town, and had a farm, wife, and children.  Pamplona held a funeral and treated the man’s death with respect; then his coffin was loaded onto a train, and his wife and children took him home, “going down grade around the edge of the plateau and out into the fields of grain that blew in the wind of the plain on the way to Tafalla” (179).  Here, Hemingway the poet uses what T. S. Eliot called objective correlative to carry quietly the emotion of the scene. 

I don’t believe that Jake always speaks for Hemingway, but I believe that these pages capture Hemingway’s attitude toward the encierro of Pamplona.  Jake and Hemingway both seem to respect the opinions of working-class people, especially Spaniards—one of Jake’s best friends is the inn-keeper, Montoya, just as Hemingway was close to Juanito Quintana all his life—and the waiter is a man whose words carry the weight of common sense.  Interestingly, mozo is a Spanish term used for waiter, but it’s also used for a young man who runs with the bulls, as in the book Mozos: A Decade Running with the Bulls of Spain by Bill Hillmann, so the waiter and the runner are kindred, both servants.  Encierro literally means “the enclosing” of the bulls, and the mozo of the encierro serves the bulls by leading them to the corral where they will await the bullfights.  But the waiter makes the point that running with bulls is foolhardy, and it’s “just for fun,” meaning it’s not work (runners aren’t paid), not art or sport like the bullfights.  In Death in the Afternoon Hemingway insists that bullfighting is an art, so he and the waiter agree that bull runners are not the equal of bullfighters.  Jake admires courage as we see when he describes Romero in the bullring, but he never describes the runners as courageous.  Also, by mentioning the wife and children, Jake makes the point that running with the bulls might be selfish and might have dire consequences for others.  Nevertheless, he sees that the city of Pamplona chooses to respect those who put their lives at risk by running on the horns (the phrase used by runners to describe the most dangerous and exciting way to run), and if a man dies in that event, it’s bad, but it’s fitting that his life and death be honored with a solemn ceremony and a moment of silence for contemplation.

I did not run on the horns.  I’m 63 and next year I want to be 64.  I’ve read and taught The Sun Also Rises for thirty years, and I wanted to see what it was about, and as John Hemingway points out, “la fiesta está por la calle,” meaning it’s in the street, so I wanted to be in the street, but I didn’t want to take too much risk.  Runners (about 94% men, 6% women, ranging in age from sixteen to over sixty) have some control over the level of risk.  When the half-mile route is opened to the runners about ten minutes before the bulls are released, they can walk down the narrow, cobblestone streets and choose their starting point.  If they start near the bullring, they can run ahead of the bulls and never be in danger—they’re called, with bemused irony, “los valientes,” the valiant ones.  For everyone else, there’s some danger because the six toros bravos (wild bulls bred exclusively for bullfighting) and several oxen are unpredictable; they might run in a pack in the middle of the street (fairly safe), or they might zigzag or run along the sides where runners go to dodge them (more dangerous), or one of them might fall or get separated from the pack and become disoriented and mad (very dangerous).  And the cause of most concern is the congestion created by the 1200 to 4000 people who run each day; the professional runners know what they’re doing and can run on the horns and dodge to safety when they need to, but the others walk, run, trip, stop, fall, push, pull and more or less get in the way of each other as they try to get out of the way of the bulls.  

I was with my future son-in-law, Max, also a first-timer.  I’d watched videos on YouTube and read tips on websites.  The official site, where you can see full videos of every run for many years, as well as dramatic photographs, is best, http://www.sanfermin.comAnd there are several books, including Bulls Before Breakfast: Running with the Bulls and Celebrating Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain, by Peter Milligan with a foreword by John Hemingway; Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona 2015, edited by Alexander Fiske-Harrison; Pamplona: Running the Bulls, Bars, and Barrios in Fiesta de San Fermin, by Ray Mouton; Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona, and Mozos: A Decade Running with the Bulls of Spain.  These last two books were written by Bill Hillmann, who was gored during the encierro of 2014.  The irony of that story became an international sensation, but to be fair to Bill Hillmann who, by all accounts, is an excellent runner, I should point out that his accident was the result of his trying to help other runners with a dangerous bull that had separated from the pack and being tripped by another runner.  Anyone who is contemplating running with the bulls for the first time should read Bill Hillmann and other experts for their crucial advice.

Max and I walked the half-mile route the night before the encierro, threading our way through bedlam, through narrow streets packed with thousands of revelers singing, dancing, drinking, spraying wine and Coke on each other, almost all of them dressed in the uniform of the fiesta, white shirt and pants (usually stained with wine), with red kerchiefs and red sashes.  We tried to judge how fast the bulls would run (faster than you think and faster than you can run) so that we wouldn’t be too far ahead of them or too far behind after they passed us.

Unlike many of the runners, we got some sleep.  At 6:00 A.M. we left our hotel and walked downtown, two hours early to be sure we’d get into the streets of the encierro before they were closed off.  As we walked down Estafeta, the longest stretch of the encierro, picking our spots and thinking about what was ahead, the mood that prevailed among the runners was nervous anticipation.  We met several groups of Americans from several states and shared the tips and information we had.  Most were novices like us, curious, uncertain, not planning to be heroes.  But there were also groups of tough-looking, athletic young men from various countries, wine-stained but not drunk, talking quietly, stretching and flexing, preparing to run on the horns, the closer the better.

At about 7:15 the police pushed and crammed all runners into a plaza in front of the town hall so that a cleaning crew could make one final sweep of the streets to make them safe for bulls and runners.  To help us pass the time and take our minds off our inability to breathe, they played a video of rules on a large screen TV: no flip flops or other ridiculous shoes, no children, no cameras (although several men wore GoPros strapped to their chests), no drinks or drugs or being high on either, no provoking or impeding the bulls, no being more of an idiot than necessary.

At about 7:50 the police broke their line and let us flow into the streets—Max  and I walked through the most congested areas and picked a spot on the right side of Estafeta just past the half-way point.

At 8:00 we heard the rocket go off, signaling that the bulls were coming.  We began to jog forward, saw a curve ahead of us, and Max suggested we cross so we’d be on the inside of the curve rather than the outside.  Within a minute we could feel the press of the crowd and picked up our pace, but it was impossible to run and look back at the same time because we’d run into someone or trip.  In fact, a man stopped right in front of me so he could look back; I saw the fear in his eyes as I ran into him.  He’d stopped because the bulls had caught up with us, and only then did I hear the thunder of their hooves on the cobblestones and turn just enough to see them charging by on my right, about eight to ten feet away.  They seemed massive and powerful, and they were moving fast, and during the twenty seconds that they were near, I was scared.  No grace under pressure from me—I ran as close to the fence as I could and I probably would’ve climbed it if I’d had time—but then the bulls passed, and I followed them through the tunnel and into the bullring, with Max at my shoulder.  The bulls trotted through the ring in orderly fashion and entered the corral at the far end; then the bullring filled up as the other runners flowed in.  The 20,000 seats of the arena were filled with spectators, including other members of my family, who presumably cheered to see that their loved ones had survived and were ready to enjoy the next round of fun.

Max and I stood by the wall and watched as a young bull, about half the size of the fighting bulls and with horns curled into a spiral so that goring wasn’t possible, ran into the ring and began to charge the runners who wanted to play.  Some of the young men were bumped, knocked down, or tossed, and one looked like he might have a broken leg, but no one was mortally wounded.  Max and I couldn’t find our people in the crowd, and we weren’t interested in playing with bulls, big or small, so after a while we left and walked out into the Plaza del Castillo feeling relieved, happy, even exhilarated on a crisp, spring-like morning with a brilliant blue sky and sharp sunshine slicing into the square.  We felt as if we’d had a full day, but it was only 8:30, and Max needed coffee, so he went to a window where a man was making drinks and selling them to people passing by.  He asked for café con leche, but the man said he didn’t have any, so Max pointed to another customer and said he’d have what that man had.  He got a typical drink of the region of Navarra, a mix of cognac and something like chocolate Yoohoo.  He said it was surprisingly good.

For the next half hour we stood in the sunshine, waiting for our family and talking to random people.  A young man and his girlfriend wandered up, we didn’t know why, and he said he was from Australia, but then he began talking in numbers: “5566,” he said.  “Okay,” I said.  “16!” he exclaimed happily.  “And 43.”  His pretty girlfriend who had a big smile that showed a lot of gums, looked at us like “I know, he’s an idiot, but what can I do?”  Another young man who was tall and thin and blonde and said he was from Mexico came up as if we were just the people he was looking for.  He chatted for a minute and then asked for directions.  I pulled out my map and pointed to where he wanted to go.  He hung around for a few more minutes, not in a hurry, said he wasn’t there to run, just to have a good time.  He said See you next year, as if that were a given, and walked away.

I couldn’t have been happier: I was unhurt, and although I knew I’d played it safe and hadn’t risked much, I still felt that I’d earned my adrenaline and my appreciation of this extraordinarily pretty day, in a plaza that was filling up slowly with friendly people of all types, from all places, as if we were members of a club that would accept anyone who would dress in white and red and let go of their problems and preoccupations.

My brother saw photos of the encierro—Max and I were plainly visible in several of those posted on the website—and wrote to say that I have courage.  I answered that stupidity and courage are often confused, and I know I’m endowed with the former rather than the latter.  Maybe not stupidity.  Maybe curiosity and ignorance—those were the bubbles in my brain that carried me to the encierro in Pamplona.  I’d tried to prepare for the running, but I didn’t really know what I was doing, made several mistakes, and was lucky not to get hurt.  All runners, except the valiant ones who run ahead or those that hide in corners or climb the fences before the bulls come, take a risk, feel the adrenaline of danger, and the relief and joy when it passes.  That’s what I felt, that’s the essence of the encierro, and I’m sure that if Hemingway had run with the bulls, he would’ve made much of it.

He would’ve come to agree with the aficionados of the encierro that running is a sport, and maybe an art as well.  The professional runners—legends such as Matt Carney, Joe Distler, Bill Hillmann, as well as the many young men of Navarra who make running with bulls a part of their lives—are athletic, knowledgeable, and courageous, and they demonstrate grace under pressure.  Hemingway had those traits; for most of his life he was strong, robust, and anxious to prove his masculinity by being a soldier and by playing football, boxing, hunting, and fishing.  And the biographies relate many anecdotes that attest to his physical courage.  So why didn’t he run—it would seem to be his sort of thing?  Maybe he did, but if he didn’t, it was probably for the reasons suggested in the book: it was something you did for fun (and for whatever reason, such as seeing a man die, it didn’t look like fun to him), it wasn’t an art or sport he admired, it would’ve been foolhardy, and it would’ve been especially risky for a young man with a young wife and a baby on the way.

Reading the novel enticed me to visit Pamplona during the fiesta, to experience it in the street, and doing so helped me understand the novel even though I’ve read it many times: it was like going to a movie set and watching the drama play out all around me.  Sitting on the terrace of the Iruña, drinking sangria and eating tapas, I could easily remember the famous photograph of 1925 that showed Ernest, Duff (to whom he was sexually attracted), and Hadley (to whom he was married—she was smiling for the camera to put a brave face on her discomfort), and I could imagine them at a nearby table.  Watching a group of young people, four men and two women, finding a spot in the grass in the Plaza del Castillo late in the afternoon and unpacking their playing cards, snacks, and five 3-liter bottles of wine in preparation for their own private fiesta within the fiesta, I could imagine the fun they’d have, but also the sexual tension, jealousy, and competition that might underlie their friendships.  Watching the revelry of the fiesta, I remembered how much alcohol the fictional characters drank, and wondered about its role in their happiness and misery, and its role in my own life.  Watching the people mingling around me, I remembered the lesson that Jake learns: the success of a party doesn’t depend on the quantity of food and drink; it depends on the quality and chemistry of the people who come.

Running in the encierro, I could choose my spot, balance my personal tolerance for risk with common sense and with my desire to prove my courage.  Making such decisions, I could assess my own values, and then assess with new insight the values of Jake and the other characters.  I could hear the many debates of the critics about Jake’s courage, fear, masculinity, androgyny, activity, passivity, and so on.  I’ve always liked Jake—he’s so complex and human, strong and weak, wise and bewildered by his impossible love—and being in the streets of Pamplona helped me appreciate more than ever how difficult it would be for a wounded man to negotiate the terrain of the bulls, especially the magnificent, dangerous one named Brett, and I was more pleased than ever with his famous last line that puts her in her place.

So why do a million people go to Pamplona every year?  Some of them, especially the young, go because it’s a week-long, blow-out party.  Some, like Hemingway, go for the party and to see the bullfights.  Some go mainly to run with bulls.  Some, like me, go because reading The Sun Also Rises has piqued their curiosity about all of the above and they want to see it for themselves.  The encierro Hemingway depicted was tragic, not heroic, not fun, and his characters didn’t participate; I did, and because I managed to do it without getting hurt, I’m glad I did.  But if I go back it’ll be because of my memory of that dazzling spring-like morning in the Plaza del Castillo where Max drank cognac and Yoohoo, and I chatted with friendly strangers, and we both felt flush with the rich, vibrant, wine-soaked, life-affirming spirit of Pamplona.

by Dr. Deno Trakas