Monday, July 15, 2013

Of Bulls and Books

You never know how big a bull’s face is until yours is shoved up next to it, and another human face presses hard against your cheek and you are trapped between the two of them, none of you able to move, because the people in front of you are stuck, and the bull is pressing you from behind, and now a person is trying to crowdsurf over you…

Then you realize how big it is. You knew that already, beforehand. You knew it when you decided to come to Pamplona, when you started getting in shape for it. You knew it when you saw the bulls thundering towards you and the people tripping over themselves and falling in piles on either side of the narrow street, unable to keep up with the pace of the massive bulls. But no, there is nothing like being as close to a bull as a babe to its mother.

After Friday’s bull run in Pamplona—the sixth encierro of the annual eight-day Fiesta de San Fermín in the Basque town of Pamplona—I thought it couldn't get any worse. A black bull had become obsessed with a young runner dressed in blue and yellow. On TV the scene was grotesque. The bull would not leave the man alone for a good thirty seconds—which is an eternity when a "clean" run from the corral to the Plaza de Toros can last just over two minutes. He kept attacking him with his horns, pulling his pants down, and at one point picking him up and throwing him back down in the most spectacular scene. The runner, we are told, is recovering and was not fatally wounded.

But it got worse. When the camera shot the final stretch of Saturday’s encierro, I saw that something was very, very wrong.

The running of the bulls begins with the chupinazo, a loud noise set off by fire right next to the corral where the bulls are kept. The bulls have been there all night, and before they run through the streets of Pamplona, they are joined by the cabestros, light-colored, spotted bulls that know the way and are not toros bravos—they mean no harm, and they will not be killed that day in bullfights. The cabestros show the dangerous bulls the way, ushering them through the sea of people—many of them dressed in the traditional loose white shirt and pants with a red bandana around the neck. When the chupinazo goes off, the cabestros bolt into the first street, la cuesta de Santo Domingo, with the toros bravos following close behind, or preferably, right up next to them. The bulls continue on Mercaderes and curve onto Estafeta, then finish the run on Telefónica Street leading into the callejón—the narrow passageway into the Plaza de Toros. There the cabestros lead them straight through the bullring to the opposite passageway, beyond which they will be kept before coming out to be played by a bullfighter later that day.

Or at least, that is what’s supposed to happen.

Many things can go wrong. One bull can sprint ahead of the rest and become very confused and start goring people. A bull can fall on the curve of Mercaderes and Estafeta. A bull can turn around on Telefónica and refuse to go into the callejón and instead try to run backwards into the people. Or, as occurred on Saturday—and for the first time this bad since 1977—a huge human pile-up can form at the end of the callejón, where it opens into the bullring.

On Saturday, the cabestros hit the massive pile-up first. The six toros bravos smashed in behind them. There were many seconds of collective panic and standstill as neither bulls nor humans could move. At last one of the cabestros was led into a side-door and all the bulls followed suit and entered the ring. But much damage was already done. People had been crushed beneath the weight of other people from above, and bulls and people from behind. A few of the victims are still in serious condition as of this writing.
Source: RTVE. (This image inspired the opening lines of this post.)

In about two months, I will be going back to Spain—back to this country of bulls and daring, of tourists and traditions, of songs and of pain. I will be living in Sevilla, home to one of the most famous bullrings as well as countless dancers, singers, and poets, who have been inspired by the tradition, beauty, tragedy, and fanaticism that surrounds the ancient connection between men and bulls in Spain. Today the runners in Pamplona invoke San Fermín to guide them through the run, but there is something more primordial than Christianity to the tradition. Running along Mercaderes, all that matters is the humans and the bulls, the bulls and the humans. All else is barricaded, inconsequential, for about two crucial minutes of one’s life. I can only imagine what it must be like in those minutes to feel connected to the majestic and dangerous animal, to feel oneself become, in many ways, an animal.

After watching the chilling pile-up, I re-read Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska, a short Newbery Award-winning novel that affected me deeply in the third grade (thank you, Ms. Earnst!). It is a coming-of-age story about a boy who is expected to become a great bullfighter like his dead father once was. In the first chapter, the book poses a convincing and beautiful theory as to the primordial relationship between people and bulls in Spain:

“In Spain, however, people have found a way of cheating death. They summon it to appear in the afternoon in the bull ring, and they make it face a man. Death—a fighting bull with horns as weapons—is killed by a bullfighter. And the people are there watching death being cheated of its right.”

The Pamplonadas every year offer normal people the chance to face death and overcome it, and come back again for the thrill. For this reason, perhaps, Hemingway was so drawn to them.

And I myself must admit to being seduced by the whole song and dance. The ancient rituals, the beauty of the bulls, the countless miracles each day when horns don’t gore the runners, who are said to be saved by el capote de San Fermín (the cape of Saint Fermín). The red of the cape later in the bull ring, the man dancing with the bull, the moment of truth. All these captivate me.

But then there is that awful pile-up, that surreal scene like nothing I have ever seen before. I am sure I will watch a bullfight in Sevilla (what writer can live in that city and not seek inspiration from the Plaza de Toros, which is alive in sorrowful flamenco songs and the collective imagination?) but there is no way I will ever run with the bulls.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Yoknapatawpha and the Crescent City

Past the independent gas stations where you only put as much gas as you absolutely need; past the winding Natchez Trace Parkway where there are no gas stations at all; past the "Indian mounds" with signs written in 1950s non-PC language; past a Chickasaw site with the outline of a fort like the one they defended against the French on my birthday centuries ago; past the alternating ranches and mansions and farms on a highway that never ends; is the hometown of William Faulkner.

In Oxford, Mississippi, trees lead to destinations. Crepe myrtles with full white blooms like bouquets of grapes flank the entrance to Ole Miss, where football reigns king with the stadium for a crown, and nice Southern boys open the door for you. Deeper, the Grove of shade-trees offers a respite from the cruel Mississippi heat and provides a pathway to the center of campus, where the old Lyceum of 1848 faces an obelisk commemorating fallen Confederate soldiers. Behind the Lyceum, a bronze James Meredith walks towards intellectual columns, re-enacting his tumultuous entrance into the university as its first black student just months after Faulkner died. Past the largest catalpa tree in the state, more trees that are the homes of conversing katy-dids lead away from campus to the churches, and further on, to the Square.

Today the SUVs are part of the view from the balcony of Bouré Restaurant, where students lingering for the summer and gray-haired locals make sure to see and be seen in their pastels and white-against-tan outfits as the sun goes down and jazz begins to be played across the way. Square Books displays John Grisham’s novels proudly alongside Faulkner’s. But what was the Oxford that Faulkner knew? Who were the well-dressed frequenters of restaurants and bars, the churchgoers, the students? Modern-day Oxford offers us a glimpse, but to better understand this creator of Yoknapatawpha County, we must go amongst the trees again.

A little outside the main part of town, majestic cedars line the path leading to Faulkner’s Rowan Oak. There the respectable furnishings, the horse paddock, and the removed tranquility of the grounds reveal him to be a Southern Gentleman—of a most absurdly normal kind. Faulkner did not write about Oxford, Mississippi (AKA the town of Jefferson in Yoknapatawpha County) as an outside observer (at least not entirely). In many ways he was part and parcel of it, raising a family, being an outdoorsman, knowing everyone’s business. And yet his eccentricities show through in the house: on the walls of his study is written the outline of his novel A Fable. MONDAY TUESDAY WEDNESDAY—all the days of a memorable Holy Week in France—organize bullet-pointed occurrences, complete with scratchings-out. It is as if his mind lived in a different element from his immediate surroundings, and yet fed off them and could not create without them and sometimes seeped into them. Even the jittery hipster waiter at the Bottletree Bakery right off the Square sees this man as an odd, odd, fellow, and many a Mississippi grandmother would rather re-read Pride and Prejudice than make sense of As I Lay Dying. But Faulkner kept coming back to this place, physically and mentally, kneading it and baking it until he got a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer out of it.

He did, of course, leave. Yes, there was Paris, as there was for Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Breton and Dalí and Carpentier. But there was also New Orleans, the city of calliopes played at twilight on the Mississippi—steam organs puffing chipper ragtime and kick-dancing tunes over Jackson Square; the city of nonstop jazz and Spanish guitars on the streets; the city of beignets that make you not care that you’re getting powdered sugar all over your black skirt; the city with a street with a city name that is actually a person’s name commemorating the man who, incidentally, fought the Chickasaw (Bienville); the city where Faulkner spent ten months in an apartment in Pirate’s Alley by the cathedral.

The trees are elsewhere in the Crescent City; they are in the Garden District where houses are dressed up like schoolgirls in their Sunday best. Water, instead, leads to the French Quarter, where our oddball lived. A muddy industrial river and a lake like an ocean hem in the old high ground. The water brings with it another element—the element of alligator and gumbo and shrimps so big they must be prawns. The element of travel, of changeability, of danger.

Certainly the waters of New Orleans stayed with Faulkner as he returned to his Lafayette County, his Yoknapatawpha. Certainly the outside perspective made him see his cedars with their bee hives a little differently. Perhaps it was with watery thoughts that he decided to put a garden of concentric circles in front of his house. But he came back and he stayed.

As a lover of travel and dwelling elsewhere (wherever that happens to be), I find it difficult to understand why a person would keep coming back and back and back to the tiny place where he grew up. But Faulkner understood that Lafayette County contained a whole universe, and he needed to make it his own and people it with the characters of his imagination. To peer into the rooms where he lived and wrote, to leaf through books in the bookstore that was once his apartment in New Orleans, to look up at the clock tower in Oxford Square and imagine Faulkner doing the same—these are ways I have tried to enter this man’s mind a little. By reading his work, I can get to know him. But his eccentric mind will always be a little beyond grasp. Nonetheless, we must keep searching.

I found him somewhere between cedars and crepe myrtles and steamboats. He found himself in Yoknapatawpha, but we could find him anywhere.

Faulkner and I in Oxford, Mississippi.
He is slightly larger than life and looks strikingly like Carlos Fuentes.