Pamplona: The Book

As I set off today for Pamplona, by way of the Côte d’Azur – arriving in capital of the Kingdom of Navarre on July 5th (see post here for how to get there and where to stay) – I have to recommend Ray Mouton’s book Pamplona (available from Amazon US here, and Amazon UK here.)

The most important thing about the book is the profound knowledge of the author. Ray has been going to Pamplona forever it would seem (I met him in Seville this year). It is well-written – a little loosely for my taste, but that is my taste – and some of the characters and characterisations are truly haunting, an impressive feat since many are still living and can be found in Pamplona this July. It is also one of the most informative and factually accurate books in English which has bulls in it. Although I am sure there are errors, as there always are when dealing with that labyrinthine and arcane tradition of blood and beauty. (For example, the man who pulls open the toril gate in the bull ring is not the man who receives the key from the President of the ring, that is the purely symbolic role of the mounted alguacillos.) However, this is an irrelevance, especially given that this is the only book of its sort in English on Pamplona.

My own book Into The Arena had many such mistakes. However, I still managed to pass with a cape every major bloodline of fighting bull in Spain and fought and killed one of the hardest, ganaderia Saltillo. Even if I did get the date they commenced building the Seville Maestranza confused with the date they completed the architectural plans (1761 & 1759 respectively.)

Below I enclose a review of Into The Arena from the English language newspaper of the Czech Republic,The Prague Post.

The Editor

Books: Into the Arena by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

A British writer studies the history and ethics of bullfighting

Bullfighting is the world’s most divisive sport.

Depending on whom you ask, bullfighting is either “the last serious thing left in the world today,” as Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca wrote, or it is, as PETA claims, “a tradition of tragedy.” The Parliament of Catalonia voted in 2010 to end the sport beginning January 2012, a signal that perhaps minds are changing even in the traditional home of the bullfight, although many southern Spaniards say this is simply a separatist ploy by Catalonians.

If bullfighting is the most divisive sport, it is also among the most alluring, especially for writers, who have flocked to Spain at least since the publication of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in 1926, which details – in glorified terms – bullfights, the running of the bulls in Spain and the culture that surrounds both activities.

British writer Alexander Fiske-Harrison became fascinated by the bullfight on a visit to Seville with his family in 2000 and returned regularly. In 2007, he published an article in the magazine Prospect inconclusively investigating the morals of the bullfight. The response was immediate and widespread: Fiske-Harrison soon found himself with a book contract, a ticket to Spain and a plan to stay for one year, immersing himself in the tradition and its key players. The result is Into the Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight, a fast-paced, choppy account of his investigation and an evocative depiction of the controversial, dangerous world of corrida de toros.

From the very beginning, Fiske-Harrison makes it clear this will not be simply another book about the act of bullfighting, but rather a philosophical inquiry into the subject, trying to decipher its ethics or lack thereof. Fiske-Harrison sets out to decide whether it is wrong to kill these powerful animals for sport.

The author does come to a conclusion regarding the ethics of bullfighting, but thankfully, Into the Arena is not a philosophical tract or a screed in support of animal rights. Instead, it narrates the events of Fiske-Harrison’s year in Spain, meeting the aficionados, breeders and matadors who make up the world of bullfighting, a world he enters almost despite himself. There is the handsome young matador Cayetano Rivera Ordónez, the garrulous Juan José Padilla and the humble Adolfo Suárez Illana, all of whom the author befriends, affording him nearly unprecedented access to the inner world of bullfighting and breeding. It is in these portions – praying with the matadors before the fight and partying with them afterward – that Into the Arena is truly remarkable.

Fiske-Harrison bullfighting (from a poster advertising his lecture on the subject at the University of Seville during the April Fair this year)

The grit and sweat of these characters is conveyed in tightly wrought prose that acknowledges its debt to Hemingway, but sometimes nestles too close to Papa’s pen.

One of the most accomplished passages in the book describes a trip Fiske-Harrison makes to Pamplona, where he runs with the bulls before witnessing the garish, tourist-oriented spectacle that is, as he writes, the “only bullfight I will ever see in Pamplona,” one that lacks the art of the best bullfights he has witnessed.

Watching the killing of a bull he ran with earlier in the day, Fiske-Harrison writes, “I had run next to this great animal … felt some form of connection to the powers that propelled him. Now I watched them all turned inwards in an attempt to defy the tiny, rigid ribbon of steel within his chest, and having been blinded by no beauty, tricked by no displays of courage or prowess by the matadors, I just saw an animal trying to stay on its feet against the insuperable reality of death. I left the plaza de toros with tears in my eyes after that. And there was nothing good in all that place.”

This emotive, finely crafted paragraph is marred by the final sentence, which is cut-rate Hemingway. You can almost hear the author saying “eureka!” as he turned the phrase. [It’s actually cut-rate Ezra Pound – see the The Tomb At Akr Çaar, line 11 – but he did teach Hemingway how to write… Ed.]

Elsewhere in the book, Fiske-Harrison relies on his journal to convey the details of bullfights and their aftermath. These sections, some of which are several pages long, are set apart by different font, and are usually introduced with a phrase like “Here is my diary write up at the time.”

Since virtually all of the book must have been compiled from journal entries and notes, one wonders why Fiske-Harrison didn’t simply work these passages into steely prose, and suspects this is a device to put the reader in the author’s shoes, so to speak. But such breaks in narrative actually foster more critical distance than Fiske-Harrison’s prose, which is seamless elsewhere, although at times he goes over the edge in his descriptions of the spiritual aspects of bullfighting, which he calls “a pillar of honesty” within our “media-driven” society.

But these qualms do little to detract from the powerful narrative of Into the Arena, whereby Fiske-Harrison evolves from a dilettante not sure how deeply he wants to be involved in bullfighting to a seasoned aficionado and, finally, an amateur matador. As the narrative moves forward, the writer’s opinions about bullfighting and the people involved in it become more subtle and more decisive, inching him toward his ethical conclusion on the sport even as he become more deeply entrenched in bullfighting’s complexities and mysteries.

Since the publication of the book, Fiske-Harrison has been touted as a new expert on bullfighting, a reputation the writer has duly earned with blood, sweat and study, and a fair amount of Spanish sherry. In this book, we see the development of that expertise.

Several decades ago, Into the Arena would have been a stunning exposé. As it stands, it is a thoughtful, well-researched and deeply felt investigation of a cultural anomaly as it teeters on the verge of commodity and taboo. By the end, Fiske-Harrison’s moral conclusions are an afterthought; what is worth saving here are the vivid evocations of men who risk their lives in a beautiful, vulgar battle with the bulls.

Into The Arena was shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year 2011 and is available from Amazon US here and Amazon UK here, as paperback, eBook or audiobook.

(Stephan Delbos is a New England–born poet living in Prague, the Czech Republic, where he teaches at Charles University and Anglo-American University and edits several literary publications, including The Prague Revue. His poetry and essays have appeared most recently or are forthcoming in New Letters, Atlanta Review, Poetry International, Zoland Poetry, and Poetry Salzburg Review. He can be reached at sdelbos@praguepost.com)

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About fiskeharrison

English author and journalist, broadcaster and conservationist. Author of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, shortlisted for Sports Book Of The Year 2011. Editor & Co-Author of Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona. Author of 'The Unbroken', finalist for Le Prix Hemingway 2016
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