Sunday, April 6, 2014

Hemingway’s fascination: Grace under pressure

MARBELLA, Spain - The enduring themes of great literature can readily be classified into three: man against nature, man against man, and man against himself.

Hemingway's "grace under pressure"...
A good example of the first, man against nature, is Sebastian Junger’s A Perfect Storm, a true story made into an equally gripping movie. Captain Ahab’s eternal struggle against Moby Dick is an excellent example from the classics.

The continuing saga of Manny Pacquiao is a perfect example of the second kind, man against man; that is why it mesmerizes us. 

But for sheer grip on the human imagination, nothing surpasses the third, man against himself, for it lays bare the best and the worst in us.  

Grace under pressure

In a sense, elements of man against himself also permeate the first two genres, for man must first conquer himself to win the battle against nature and other men. Hamlet is the classic example. 

In 1959, having written Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway was invited to revisit the Spanish bullfights of his youth.  And so he went back to Spain to relive the glory days of the bullfighters who choreographed life, death and courage in the bloody stage of the Spanish bullring.

Hemingway believed that to relish life a man must stare death in the face. That was what fascinated him about the bullfight---grace under pressure.

In Hemingway’s time, the bullfighters brought the corrida to the major cities of Spain—from Madrid to Malaga, Burgos to Barcelona, Sevilla to Zaragosa, Alicante to Algeciras. 

'The New Matadors'

Through the long, hot Spanish summer, the great matadors traveled the bullfighting circuit, much like the great racing drivers of our time take the Formula 1 season to the great capitals of the world.

The bullfighters had Hemingway to chronicle their exploits for all time. We had Ken W. Purdy, writing for Road & Track magazine, to chronicle the exploits of the great racing drivers of our time.

The perceptive Purdy saw many parallels between the bullfighters and the Grand Prix drivers.  Their natural talents astounded him.


In a paean to these modern bullfighters, Purdy wrote the classic motoring book, The New Matadors. The metaphor was bulls-eye.

As they toured the European circuits, Purdy marveled at the extraordinary abilities of the racing drivers. Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart liked to tease journalists: “I just drive around in circles.”

Driving by the seat of their pants, they not only often threw caution to the wind but also kept a healthy sense of danger to stay alive.

The smell of grass

Even before the first drops of rain blurred his visors, Stewart said, he could sense danger coming the moment he saw umbrellas pop up in the distance. The road ahead would soon be slippery, and he would need to fine-tune his cornering speeds, calibrating precisely the ever-sliding limits of adhesion between four tires and a wet road.

Stewart also knew when another car had gone off the road---because mingled with the heady smell of high-octane gas would be a whiff of freshly cut grass that sliding tires scatter into the wind from the edge of the track.

If Hemingway’s bullfighters treaded the fine line between being graceful and being gored, Purdy’s new matadors knew how to stay on the slippery threshold between being quick and being dead.


 In the early 70s a band of young motoring enthusiasts formed a group called Autofriends to help them put together the technical resources to compete against company-sponsored professional teams in the Philippine car rallies.  One of them, Willie Ingles, caught the eye of the local distributors of Volkswagen, who formed a team to drive a VW Passat at the European World Cup Rally, the world's premier car rally event.

The team went to Germany to get the Passat, and drove it to London for the start at Wembley Stadium. Soon they were in the drive of their lives in the rocky mountains of Spain, after crossing the English Channel and traversing the French countryside. 

They were on their way to the Mediterranean coast for the ferry ride to Africa, where they were to cross the Sahara and then double back to central Europe before careening back to London.

Hell hath no fury

The mountain roads of Spain were tricky.  They heard air horns blaring and headlights flashing behind them in the dust.  They sped up to avoid being overtaken, but the horns and headlights grew more frantic.  

A rally-bred Peugeot pulled alongside the stock Passat, and the Filipinos saw two fuming French girls flailing fists of fury in the air.

Distracted, the Filipinos hit a rock that bent a suspension rod. They had to end it in a Spanish port to ship the Passat back home.

Back in Manila, Ingles regaled his Autofriends with tales of the blazing encounter with the girls of Peugeot.

Kindred souls

Every once in a while Autofriends would gather at the home of ever-gracious hosts Andy and Felice Sta. Maria, sharing stories of days gone by, remembering friends like Lito Saulo, Toti Casas, Cesar Daluz, Pete Syquia, Chuchi Yriarte, Ed Quirino, Albert Adriano, Joven Reyes, Benjie Pua, Sixto Salumbides, Bebot and Ed Roxas, Ed Modesto, Bobby Basa, Noel Plana, Volney Ricafort, and Omboy and Finina Suzara.

Bound by bonds of friendship that transcend racing circuits, they would laugh the night away with tall tales that refuse to die.

In a sense, Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Stewart, and Manny Pacquiao are kindred spirits. We’d love to have them over, if we could, to share stories together---a band of brothers forever.

Photo credit: The last bullfight in Barcelona,


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