Pamplona. San Fermin. The Running Of The Bulls. Nowadays, almost everybody knows about this fiesta, probably the most famous annual celebration in Spain. Most years it makes the news because somebody has been horrifically injured, or worse, killed. It’s almost certainly been featured in a BuzzFeed “23 Essential Backpacker Experiences” list (I haven’t looked). It’s hard to miss. Given that, I’m still slightly surprised that I managed to get to the age of 21 without hearing about it. My first Pamplona experience was during my trip around Europe in 2002. Fellow backpackers would regularly tell exciting stories about Pamplona over dinner. It seemed like a magical place. There was no accommodation to be had, but that didn’t matter, because the parties, the drinking, THE PARTIES… It was a backpacker mecca. There were tales of no sleep for a week, and of levels of alcohol consumption that would be frowned upon by Oliver Reed. Neither of us were entirely sure how we felt about bullfighting, but we were persuaded by beer. We resolved to add it to our itinerary immediately, but for various reasons (amongst them, the fact that we were told that San Sebastian had incredible tapas), we never made it.
Still, it was now firmly lodged in my head as a potential future trip. Two years later, I revisited San Sebastian, this time hiring a car so I could explore the Basque Country more thoroughly. As it happened, my trip coincided with San Fermin. This time I was definitely going to experience the famous festival.
And what an experience it was. A terrible experience. Mistake one: we left San Sebastian early in the day but didn’t arrive in Pamplona until mid-morning, so missed the running of the bulls. Mistake two: we drove (so I couldn’t drink). Mistake three: we stayed longer than five minutes (but not long enough to join the next night’s celebrations, because we had to drive back to San Sebastian). It was mid-festival and Pamplona was a mess. It had been raining the night before, and the combination of rain, and all the excesses of the previous night made the streets unbearable. I was experiencing the hideous aftermath of a party that I hadn’t even attended. This was not the atmosphere of fun that I was anticipating. I had a depressingly shit sandwich in some Spanish chain cafe that didn’t even have any seats, and left for the more refined air and pintxos of San Sebastian.
I subsequently crossed Pamplona off my to do list, and didn’t intend to revisit the experience. However, having read (and enjoyed) Hemingway’s “The Old Man And The Sea”, I decided to give Pamplona one last go, in the form of “Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises” (hereafter, ‘Fiesta’).
Surprisingly (if you know nothing about the book apart from the headlines, like me), the characters in ‘Fiesta’ take a while to get to Pamplona. Page 114 of 218 in my version, to be precise. The first 75 pages are spent in Paris, and then there’s a fishing trip diversion on the journey south. Most writers would use this time to paint a rich picture of the personalities of the various characters, but then most people aren’t Hemingway. Anyway, eventually the book hits its stride, and we arrive in Pamplona (see map).
It’s here that we really get to know the characters. And it’s here that I finally decide that I don’t really like any of them. Brett Ashley is promiscuous and manipulative. Robert Cohn is argumentative and temperamental. Mike Campbell is weak. Romero is young and foolish. Jake Barnes is the only one with any backbone, but even he doesn’t really seem to know what he wants, although there is a suggestion that is mind becomes made up towards the end of the book. In Pamplona, the group drink, sleep, watch the bulls and repeat to infinity. There are fights, childish love triangles, and a little too much anti-Semitism for the modern reader. I find myself rooting for nobody, not even Jake and Brett in the will they/won’t they love story. I just want the end of the book.
The catch, of course, which many familiar with the book will already know, is that it’s basically a true story, and the characters are based on Hemingway and his friends. The picture below was actually taken of the group of friends in question, whilst in Pamplona.
It begs the question: to what extent does the book reflect artistic licence, and what actually happened? The bull-fighting certainly happened, although the young matador is apparently a Hemingway creation, based on aspects of older bullfighters that he admired. And from reading around, it seems that nobody really quibbles with the descriptions of the bullfighting in general. It’s brutal and not particularly glorified. I appreciated the honesty of the writing, but as a result I’m more convinced than ever before that bullfighting isn’t for me.
Honest, for me, sums up Hemingway’s writing as a whole. I’m a fan. I’m not sure if it’s a popular thing to say, but I am. The writing is sparse, restrained, lacks beauty, and barely provides enough detail for the reader to feel fully informed, but the impact his style has on the pacing of the novel cannot be denied. It feels like a breath of fresh air today, so I cannot imagine how it would have felt 90 years ago.
But, and there is always a but, I was left with a resounding feeling of ‘what if’. It’s a book which, at its heart, is basically about being young and experiencing adventures. Imagine if it had been written by Kerouac instead of Hemingway. Imagine the stories in Pamplona. Hemingway doesn’t seek out the really interesting characters; Kerouac would have done so. And that would have given me more of what I wanted. An insight into Pamplona between the wars, not Eldorado with added animal cruelty.
It’s a generous 6/10 from me. I enjoyed reading Hemingway’s prose, but I wasn’t a fan of the story, if that is an allowable combination. I’ll go back to Hemingway again, in the shape of “The Old Man And The Sea”, which bears endless re-reading. I won’t be going back to Pamplona.
PS. Writing something that isn’t my PhD has been hard since last May. Bear with me. More to come in a few weeks’ time. Hopefully.