SI Vault
 
The Sound of Hooves
John McCormick
July 07, 1969
The Sound of Hooves is still what matters at Pamplona, but when Mary Hemingway dedicates a monument the wonders of Papa's 'feria' are enhanced
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 07, 1969

The Sound Of Hooves

The Sound of Hooves is still what matters at Pamplona, but when Mary Hemingway dedicates a monument the wonders of Papa's 'feria' are enhanced

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

In Pamplona, Navarre, Spain, at exactly noon last July 6, the mayor stood on a balcony of the city hall, signaled for the firing of a rocket and shouted "Viva San Ferm�n!" Thousands of people gathered in the plaza below and in plazas throughout the city answered the mayor's shout with their own "Viva San Ferm�n!" and thus began 10 days of celebration of the feast of the third-century saint that are unparalleled for energy, enthusiasm, gaiety and—perhaps above all—endurance. That first-day ceremony has been going on in Pamplona since the 16th century, it will be repeated next Monday, and insofar as human affairs are predictable, it will continue to go on for a long time to come. But last year a major variation in the rigorously traditional ritual took place.

As soon as 17 more rockets were fired, the first pipe and drum bands started up and the first jotas begun (the jota as performed in Pamplona is a cross between a muscular polka and a samba line, lubricated by red wine and danced by any number between one and 79), the mayor's party was ushered into taxis that inched their way half a mile to the grounds outside the bullring, where the officials proceeded to dedicate a bronze and granite bust of Ernest Hemingway and to name a street adjoining the ring the Paseo de Hemingway. As Hemingway's widow and the mayor, a pleasant partridge and a genial shark, went through their official motions beneath a searing sun, their words lost in the mob of onlookers who made a racket like two World Series crowds, the question of why an American writer should be so honored in a provincial Spanish capital necessarily came to mind.

The inscription on the granite pedestal of the bust offered only a superficial answer. It reads in translation, " Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Prize Winner, friend of this people and admirer of their fiestas, who knew how to describe and so to make them known: The City of Pamplona, San Ferm�n, 1968." Now the Spanish have many virtues, but among them is neither an unusual love of literature nor a disposition to honor foreign Nobel Prize winners. Over a period of years I have met only a handful of Spaniards who have ever read a word of Hemingway's.

Neither did the thought that the Spanish were being good businessmen by honoring the source of so much tourism make sense. One of the attractions of Spain is that even when the people are avaricious, they are only inadvertently commercial about it. The real answer, I felt, lay within Pamplona itself, in its fiesta of San Ferm�n and in an irrational but identifiable relationship between Hemingway's work, his person and his international heritage. It might be useful, I thought, to take Hemingway's own ideal, about which he made such a tedious noise—his notion of fidelity to experience and to place—and to test it against the palpitating life of San Ferm�n 1968.

The major document is, of course, Hemingway's first noted novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926). That book marked the beginning of Hemingway's international fame, of 35 years of controversy over his life and work, a controversy that continues even now, eight years after his death in 1961. Set in Paris and Pamplona, the novel shows Hemingway's ability not merely to reflect a time and place, but also to impose upon a time and place his particular and even eccentric vision, an effect he achieved with a use of language that was to have a profound influence on American literature.

It was Hemingway's use of language even more than the facts and impressions he selected to write about that made in our minds so magical a place of Pamplona, to the degree that to test that language coldly in the actual, contemporary city would seem to guarantee disappointment. And surely the passage of the years, with their thousands of tourists, would have had their effect. Pamplona could be only a shadow of the Hemingway substance, the place a self-parody, an imitation of the many images we know from television, movies, books and magazines. No city could bear the burden of such exposure, no gaiety survive such self-consciousness.

First among many pleasant surprises at Pamplona was to find that my reasoning was plain wrong. Hemingway's fiesta of San Ferm�n and the Pamplona of 1922 is essentially unchanged, and throughout the 10 days' celebration life and literature careen together in unsettling fashion. San Ferm�n is not something staged for the tourists, like a Navajo rain dance; it remains a genuine expression of joy among a reserved people, and it remains Spanish. The tourists, whatever their numbers, have not been able to mar the occasion more than superficially. From the housewives hurrying to their kitchens with whole butchered lambs cradled in their arms like babies, to the encierro (the running of the bulls through the streets of the town in the early morning), to the waves of white-clad figures with red sashes and red handkerchiefs about their necks on the sunny side at the afternoon corridas, whanging drums and dancing sweaty jotas between and sometimes during the matadors' work on their bulls, Pamplona was true to itself, to the shade of Ernest Hemingway and to one's mental vision of what the fiesta of San Ferm�n ought to be.

Hemingway's Pamplona is, of course, selective and simplified for his particular literary purposes, thus his accuracy is first imaginative and secondarily literal. It is worth noting that the thing itself in life is more extensive than what we find in The Sun Also Rises, or even in the reporting of The Dangerous Summer (1960). The historical San Ferm�n was not only a local saint, but regional, national and even international. He is credited with having converted the region to Christianity, and he was martyred for his efforts. Hence the fiesta itself is not only local but certainly regional and to a certain degree national. Families and entire towns from Navarre and the Basque country arrive in buses not only to run with the bulls and to attend corridas, but also to go to the carnival, to compete in sports events and in woodchopping contests, to exhibit their local style of singing and dancing and to buy a long garland of garlic in the garlic market to take back to the village.

A typical day, as officially scheduled, begins at 5:45 a.m. with band music and a caping of calves in the bullring, followed by the running of the bulls at 7, then a concert of regional music, then a comic bullfight. The main corrida at 5:30 p.m. lasts about two hours. For those not in the plaza, the giants—medieval 12' figures inspired by legend and the Bible—wander through the streets, to the joy of the children. From 8 to 10 p.m. there is more band music in the main square; at 10:30 a fireworks bull is paraded through the streets and at 11 there are spectacular fireworks for all. Dance music is played in the main square until 1:30 a.m.

The unofficial schedule includes imbibing a quantity of red wine, an occasional meal in one of the fine restaurants, perhaps a picnic up in the Pyrenees near Roncesvalles 22 miles away, site of the death scene in the French epic, The Song of Roland, or a drive to the elegant resort city, San Sebasti�n, for a swim in the Atlantic or perhaps a nap; and if you are feeling young enough or drunk enough or both, a leaping, running jota through the streets of the old city with two Swedes, four American hippies, an English banker, two French barbers and 36 men of Navarre.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4