‘Furious energy’ Hemingway took from the bulls

Editor’s Note: The following is an extract by John Hemingway from “Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona,” edited by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, and published by Mephisto Press.

Story highlights

Ernest Hemingway described the bull-running Fiesta in his novel "The Sun Also Rises"

His grandson John Hemingway says only in Pamplona can a man risk life running in front of six Toro Bravos

John Hemingway: Coming to Pamplona made me appreciate Ernest more as a man and as an artist

Here you must run until you're either pushed aside, knocked down, gored or worse

Pamplona, Spain CNN  — 

I don’t think that anyone can prepare you for Pamplona. From the moment of the Chupinazo at twelve noon on the 6th of July to the closing ceremonies at midnight on the 14th there is no other celebration like it in the world. Certainly many have tried to describe what goes on during the Fiesta, including of course my grandfather Ernest Hemingway in his novel “The Sun Also Rises,” but if you really want an idea of what it’s all about then you’ve got to go there and see it for yourself.

Which, of course, is exactly what Ernest Hemingway did in 1923. He had first heard about it from Gertrude Stein, one of his literary mentors and a woman who had piqued his curiosity with her tales of the Carthaginian origins of bullfighting. Nothing was ever as it seemed, she told her star student and the Corrida, or bullfight, represented for some the wedding gift of the groom to the bride, wherein the bull symbolically was the man and the torero the woman.

John Hemingway

Their fight was a ballet, she explained, and only when the bullfighter went over the animal’s horns and placed his sword perfectly into the morrillo (the large muscle on the back of the bull’s neck), pushing it down into the heart and killing it instantly, was there a union between the two and a consummation of their love.

She knew my grandfather well and probably thought, where else in Europe could a war veteran go and expect to find the same danger and exhilaration that comes from living on the edge, the same camaraderie and apparent contradictions that Ernest had seen on the Austrian front in Italy in 1918?

Only in Spain – and specifically in Pamplona, where the townspeople gave any man the opportunity to risk his life every morning running in front of a herd of six Toro Bravos – would my grandfather find what he truly needed.

He came to the Fiesta a total of nine times, most of them in the 1920s and the last two in 1953, a year before he won the Nobel Prize and in 1959, two years before he died. Now while I’d advise anyone to read my grandfather’s works to have a more intimate idea of the kind of person he was, if for no other reason than because being a writer myself, I understand how important it was for him to write every day and to write as well as he could, I also know that his many visits to Pamplona were just as much a measure of the man.

They were as important as his writing was, but for other reasons. Here he could let himself go. Here he didn’t have to worry about the blank page, or the flow of his words or maintaining that furious energy that any writer needs to create something that is powerful and sublime.

No, during the Fiesta he was surrounded by friends and was reminded every day that “you don’t own it.” That nothing is permanent and that everything is ephemeral and passing, including the people that you meet and the moments that you share. Most everything that he did back then and that in fact people still do today was spontaneous and unplanned. “La fiesta está por la calle” they like to say in Pamplona, the party is in the streets.

This is what you learn when you come here and what I understood immediately in 2008 when I came here for the first time. It brought me closer to my grandfather and made me appreciate him more as a man and as an artist. If he could embrace this chaos and see it for what it was (life itself) and understand the need for this modern day bacchanalia then I could too.

“You don’t own it,” I could almost hear him say, and you never do but you can face your fears and the unexpected like a man and run in front of the bulls as fast as your legs will carry you until you’re either pushed aside, knocked down, gored or worse.

That’s the beauty of Pamplona, it gives you the chance to experience something that perhaps you’ve never experienced before, to finally be creative with your own life.

READ: How to survive Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls