Dispatch August 2007

Raging Bulls

Atlantic staff editor Timothy Lavin runs with the bulls in Pamplona and lives to tell the tale
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"Theese is not a joke.” That’s how the bartenders in Pamplona answer when you ask for tips on running with the bulls. Then they recite a litany of potential calamities—gorings, tramplings, concussions, broken ankles, beatings from an angry mob. And, of course, the big one. The bartender at a place called Txoko scribbled “1995” on a cocktail napkin, the last year someone—a young American—had died at the festival, and pointed at it. “This year, an American?” My friend and I nodded. The bartender slid his finger across his throat. “Muerto!”

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REVELERS crowd the streets of Pamplona

Subtlety is not a salient virtue in Pamplona during the fiesta of San Fermin. For nine days each July, the city morphs into a riotous, crowd-swollen, Large Hadron Collider of a party. Bars do not close for a moment, day or night. Drums fill the night air, bands with varying dedication to their trade march to bar after bar, and troupes of dancers stagger through alleyways—everyone apparently convinced this is their last night on earth. Their famous all-white outfits seem like blank canvases on which they intend to paint a record of their drunken debauch for later reflection.

Entrepreneurs seem to have perfected the synthesis of selling and reveling. Like the long-haired capitalist we met on Calle San Nicolas, in the Casco Viejo neighborhood, who had set up shop with a wooden plank covered with nails. For a euro, he’d hand you a hammer. You then had three chances to pound a tenpenny nail fully into the plank. This is much harder than it sounds, which I suspect is why he seemed to let everyone win, even if they completely missed. Or maybe he let everyone win because as a prize, the victors got to do a shot of J&B with the proprietor, straight from his personal bottle.

But the fiesta is not a joke. Intimations of death animate seemingly every ritual enacted in St. Fermin’s honor, religious and otherwise. The saint himself earned martyrdom—by beheading—in the second century after proselytizing too vigorously among the pagan French in Amiens. Runners rarely die during the encierro, the daily bull run, but on any morning they might (13 have been killed since record-keeping began). And every bull that barrels down those streets will end up dead in the ring, felled by a matador’s sword during the nightly bullfights.

Such emotional complexity helps separate the fiesta from your average nine-day nonstop party. Edward Lewine, in Death and the Sun, calls it “the amazing Spanish ability to reconcile the high with the low, the grotesque with the beautiful, the morbid with the joyous, the religious with the unholy, and make sense of it in a way few other cultures can.”

I didn’t see much sense-making going on, and I suspect that enough sangria can do a lot of reconciling, but everyone in Pamplona seemed at peace with the festival’s spiritual duality.

Once the bartender at Txoko felt sure we understood his point about the muerto business, he calmed down and drew an intricate map of the route that the bulls would run through the city that morning. He pointed out the best starting points, the corners to avoid, the tricky inclines. In two hours, we’d follow this zigzag through Pamplona’s narrow, crowded streets. He offered us coffee. Finally, he shrugged and echoed nearly everyone else I had asked about the run: “If you have to do it, you have to do it.”

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THE AUTHOR ASKS a local bartender for some last-minute advice

Observed from a distance, the encierro seems simple enough. Hemingway’s description of it in The Sun Also Rises, which introduced most of the English-speaking world to the festival, might just as well have been about a game of marbles, if not for the sparest of nods to mortality:

Down below the narrow street was empty. All the balconies were crowded with people. Suddenly a crowd came down the street. They were all running, packed close together. They passed along and up the street toward the bull-ring and behind them came more men running faster, and then some stragglers who were really running. Behind them was a little bare space, and then the bulls galloping, tossing their heads up and down. It all went out of sight around the corner. One man fell, rolled to the gutter, and lay quiet. But the bulls went right on and did not notice him. They were all running together.

The morning before our run, I stood on a stone wall overlooking the final straightaway that led into the Plaza de Toros, the arena where the encierro concludes and the matadors later on do their dirty work. The bulls begin their death march at 8 a.m. The explosion of a ceremonial rocket announces the opening of the gates to their pen; a second report moments later indicates that all of them are loose. (A third rocket explodes when all the bulls make it to the ring, and a fourth when they’re in the corral and the run is over.)

At about 8:03, I saw a group of wide-eyed men round the final corner, followed by six black bulls neatly escorted by some bulky, unhurried steers. After they had all entered the arena, two men slammed the substantial gates closed with a climactic metallic thud, in the faces of runners trying to gain last-minute entrance. Everyone clapped. Easy enough.

The next day, the police, without explanation, bumped us (along with perhaps a hundred other runners) off the street at our intended starting point. This meant we had to climb back in, through wooden barricades, about a hundred yards up the Calle Estafeta—closer to the bulls, and farther from the relative safety of the ring.

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RUNNERS LINE UP and await the stampede

As the appointed hour neared, I considered the advice the locals had dispensed the day before: Take the corners close, because the bulls will always go wide; pick a running lane and stay in it, because lane-changing leads to ugly human pileups; and, most importantly, stay down if you fall, because a bull’s natural inclination is to step over things in his path—and to gore things that unexpectedly jump up in front of him. Only now did it occur to me that tips one and two would immediately enter into contradiction, and that three was worthlessly counter-instinctual. Onward.

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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic senior editor.

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