Jeremy Clarke Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 12 July 2008

In the thick of it

I’ve not been to Pamplona’s famous week-long ‘running of the bulls’ and bullfighting fair of Saint Fermin since 2002; but every year since, on 6 July, at midday, when the town council lets off the rocket signalling the start of the festivities, I’ve felt a pang of regret that I’ve once again failed to manage my life sufficiently well to be there with the thousands who have.

I first went ten years ago, after reading Hemingway’s bullfighting encyclopedia Death in the Afternoon. After half a dozen chapters of meticulous description of the Spanish corrida, Hemingway admits that it is beyond even his powers of description to convey fully the effect on the senses of a bullfight, and challenges the reader to go to Spain and see one before reading on. It was the first week in July and Pamplona’s religious bull fair was on, so I obediently took the ferry to Santander, then a bus across northern Spain to the old Carlist bastion.

I can’t see why Hemingway is as universally disparaged as he is. He went off the rails a bit in mid-career, I suppose; but his early stuff, by which I mean his short stories and his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, which popularised Pamplona’s Sanfermines festival, seems to me almost miraculous. In particular there is a passage in The Sun Also Rises in which the narrator takes a bus ride from the square in Pamplona up into the foothills of the Pyrenees to go trout fishing, whose images light up my dim brain far more vividly than any deposited there by lived experience.

So when I arrived in Pamplona, I first made a pilgrimage, by bus, along the route described in the novel, and stayed for a night in the village the narrator used as a base for the fishing trip.

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