Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen
translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson
There’s no mistaking it – Tomorrow Pamplona is a very masculine novel. It combines boxing and bull-running with two men on a road-trip; but thankfully, there is much more to it than just those testosterone-fuelled scenarios. With these subjects, you can’t not compare it to Hemingway, but more of that later. Themes of love and obsession, running away and, finding oneself have equal measure in this short novel, published today.
Danny Clare is a promising young boxer;he’s landed a contract with a big promoter to go and fight in Germany. It’s complicated for he’s in love with Ragna, who belongs to the promoter, and at the start of the novel something appears to have gone wrong, for Danny is running away, fleeing the town.
Robert is on his way to Pamplona. A family man, he makes the annual pilgrimage to reclaim his self in this most dangerous of events. He often picks up hitch-hikers on the way, and this year it’s Danny who is soaking wet in the rain. Although Danny is rather taciturn, Robert tries to make conversation telling him about Pamplona …
Robert laughs. He pauses before continuing: I have a family and a house and a nine-to-five job, he says. Five days a week, all year round. Except for that one week in Pamplona.
So Pamplona’s your escape?
It’s more than an escape, Robert replies. And it’s not just about the kick. You’ve got to have your own reason for running with the bulls.
The conversation continues until Danny asks ‘How far is it to Pamplona?’ He’s hooked. Robert plans to drive through the night, down through France. As they continue on their journey, Robert continues to try and draw Danny out …
That’s another thing you can’t imagine, he ways. It’s something you have to experience for yourself. Do you know what the problem is with childbirth? You can’t do a bloody thing. As a man, you be there with her, but there’s sod all you can actually do. …
… All that time, you’re just sitting there. And you know what? You’d rather be facing the bulls. At least then you know what you’re dealing with. When you’re sitting there by the bed like that, you might as well be invisible.
As the journey progresses, apart from Robert’s ramblings, we gradually find out Danny’s story, which is the reverse of Robert’s. Danny mentally reviews his life in flashback. We explore the sweaty world of the gym, the relentless training, and then the excitement of falling in love and the obsession it will bring. Eventually they will reach Pamplona in time for the bull run, and the novel’s climaxes. We find out what really happened, and what the two men have to go home to.
I’ve read a few novels by Hemingway, including Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, his debut, which I enjoyed very much (regardless of any debate on bull-fighting), liking his simple and direct ‘tell it like it is’ style and snappy dialogue. This novel is written/translated in a somewhat similar style, with short sentences that drive the complex emotions that bubble underneath. Given the monotony of the long road journey, this style also helps the story keep rolling steadily along, revealing its secrets as the miles pass.
There are also similarities between Jake in Fiesta and Danny in this novel – centred on their love for a woman they couldn’t have – but whereas I liked Jake, I didn’t really warm to Danny who is very self-centred and at war with himself. Robert, I could sympathise with; clearly in the full-blown throes of a mid-life crisis, needing to prove that he was still a man, with his own will.
This is yet another short novel of quality from Peirene Press, who continue to bring great modern European fiction to English readers, but ironically, it does make me want to read more Hemingway. (8/10)
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The publisher Peirene Press kindly sent my copy – Thank you.
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Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen