Saturday, July 14, 2007

Well Bully for Them

The brothers Lenahan were seriously gored in this year’s running of the bulls in Pamplona. "I think my brother and I underestimated the speed and danger of it," Lawrence Lenahan said, "it" being a 1,300 pound raging bull.

On one hand, there’s little to comment on that that wouldn’t be unkind to the intelligence of the siblings.

On the other hand, judgment is not an attribute that comes in to play much during the San Fermin Festival.

I was there in 2002, while touring with a small acapella singing group. We performed around Santiago de Campostela and at the Bilbao Guggenheim. (And may I just say that it was a shame that the Basques plot to blow up Jeff Koons’s “Puppy” that sits on the terrace of that sublime building wasn’t successful.)

We were taking a day off in San Sebastian, when we collectively decided to get up at 4:00 in the morning to get to Pamplona in time for the running.

This was quite a journey for me. The Sun Also Rises startled, rattled, and rocked my college world. And now I was making my way through the endless sea of red and white looking for the sophisticates of Jake and Lady Brett, only to find hordes and hordes of drunk English college boys.

My friends and I didn’t even try to see the actual run, but went to the bull ring, where they enter. I stopped to buy a panuelo rojo and sash, which was a small thrill.

We found good seats right above the door of the ring, and saw the bulls charge in at incredible speeds to a deafening roar from the crowd. The pulse of the entire scene is enormous. Blood is hot and pumping everywhere. When the fever of the run is over, there is a playful time with baby bulls in the ring. The sun rises further and further, and it gets hotter and hotter still until you find a cool wineskin to drink from.

I got separated from my friends amidst the pandemonium of leaving the bullring. I made my way through the narrow, stone streets packed with people moving in every direction at once. I managed to break through a particularly bad body jam, turned a corner, and was amazed to see 6 gigantes--30 feet figures of a Moor, an Indian, a King and Queen--literally towering over the chaos, with a majestic stillness and quietness. It was eerie and beautiful, medieval and carnival all together.

The Festival of San Fermin is so much more than the bulls. It is a mélange of folklore and Catholicism--people go to the main Mass each day, and the procession of the saint is important. I was struck by how many families were there. The Basques and the Spanish are very elegant people, with strong family bonds.

Everything about Pamplona shouts of life and takes on the inherent difficulties of the human condition: like the crazy hubris to goad and run with bulls to the darker side of cruelty to animals. Hemingway took it all in and couldn't let it go, but had to underscore the frailty of our lives:

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes.” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

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