Tomorrow Pamplona is a breath-taking read – by that I mean that at times it was so tense I found I had forgotten to breath! Peirene’s books are famous for allowing a reading in one sitting; this is certainly one you won’t want to put down until it is finished.
A superb novella. Jan van Mersbergen explores the male psyche through the boxer Danny and the family man Robert, one thumbing a ride from the other one rainy afternoon out of Amsterdam. Both are running away from life — Danny from his doomed romance with the inscrutable Ragna, while Robert gets away every year from wife, kids and job to go down to the feria in Pamplona, the running of the bulls that Hemingway first made famous back in the ’30s before Bollywood latched on to it more recently. Because of the subject matter (masculine crisis, bulls of San Fermin) and the style (short, punchy sentences), comparisons with Hemingway are practically inevitable, and JVM gives a sly nod to Papa with a scene set in a roadside bodega just outside Pamplona. The owner is pointing to a faded photo on the wall:
His name. Esteban Domeño. An American wrote a book about the fiesta. He described Esteban’s death, but in the book he was called Vicente… Everyone goes to the bull running and they all know the name of Vicente Girones. No one knows the name Domeño.
The prose is cool, clean and efficient, and drives the story forward irresistibly. Nothing is wasted, nothing is in excess. The narrative is cinematic: mixing Danny’s flashbacks of Amsterdam (the boxing club, Ragna) with the present moment, the road trip to the south along the motorways of Belgium and France. Tenses alternate likewise — past, present, past, present again. There are some beautiful setpieces, most notably a night-time halt by a river in southern France where Danny has a strange encounter with a swimmer. The sights and sounds of Pamplona on fiesta-day are evoked vividly, although the best description of what it’s like to be running in front of half a dozen charging bulls comes earlier, from the mouth of Robert. For me, another defining aspect of the novel is its seamless European-ness. The effortless crossing of borders (Holland, Belgium, France, Spain), the constant switching between multiple languages (Dutch, English, French Spanish), even the multi-cultural hodgepodge of a big city like Amsterdam (white, black, Asian, African, Arab) — it’s all in here. The book brings you close to how it actually feels to be living in western Europe today. Not a feat I’ve come across too often, so kudos to JVM on that account too.
A word finally about the publishers Peirene. The enterprising Meike Ziervogel set it up back in 2009 with the express aim of introducing modern European fiction to a wider readership. Over the last four years, they have brought out a dozen novels in English translation, from all corners of the continent, each of them less than 200 pages, each designed to be read in a couple of days at most. If Tomorrow Pamplona is anything to go by, then any sentient reader will be hunting down the rest of their output tout de suite. I can only hope that Ziervogel and her brilliant translator Laura Watkinson are getting on the case with Jan van Mersbergen’s other novels too. Can’t wait to read more of his stuff…
The ‘fight or flight’ response takes on a new dimension in Jan Van Mersbergen’s new novel Tomorrow Pamplona. For the main character, a boxer named Danny, jogging in the rain isn’t simply for exercise, as we see him accepting a ride out of town with an unusually generous man. Immediately, a sense of tension is palpable. Where are they going? Why is the driver, Robert, so accommodating to the stranger he’s picked up? Is either man in danger from the other? The questions add up as the two journey out of town, and Robert explains that he’s headed to Pamplona to run with the bulls.
With both boxing and Pamplona in the novel one may think of Hemingway, but Van Mersbergen isn’t trying to imitate him or allude to his novels. Instead, he composes a theme of escape: As Danny stares silently through the car window, he observes everything in constant motion, and he seems to notice the world around him for the first time. The setting is significant too, for Pamplona is the destination of many who travel to Santiago for a religious pilgrimage. (…)
Van Mersbergen writes sparingly and doesn’t presume to tie up all the threads he’s unraveled. Many questions are left unanswered. He places seemingly random scenes in between carefully scripted interchanges, with the reader forced to guess at the significance—a technique that actually pulls the reader in more tightly. (…)
The novel offers more than simply a quest motif, although its ‘road of trials’ fits the format. Danny plays a tragic hero with the requisite tragic flaw, but he steps outside the genre with his total resistance to Robert’s influence. If quests had round-trip tickets, that would better fit the structure of this novel. Although the ending doesn’t do justice to the suspense that preceded it, Tomorrow Pamplona takes the reader on a satisfying journey. (Amy Henry)
Clean, short sentences drive the novel along, matching the long drive down the motorways. Paris is just a passing glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. The ride enclosed in the car is the claustrophobic world in which Danny is trapped, even as he flees. There are two main tensions making us rapidly turn the pages: what will happen in Pamplona and just what happened back in Holland to make Danny run, with no money or luggage? The dénouements do not disappoint. The novel’s structure is simple, but simplicity, we know, is hard to bring off well. The temptation is to amplify, but Jan van Mersbergen keeps everything tight. The characterisation is good. Robert, friendly, cheerful and sexist, is brilliantly drawn almost solely through dialogue. The portraits of people in Danny’s life in Holland – his manager, the promoter and the promoter’s companion Ragna, with whom Danny falls obsessively in love – bring the detail of a boxing gym to life. This road novel tackles the theme of fleeing. Danny is accustomed to stand and fight, but now he is running. Robert too flees his family for his annual safety-valve of running before the bulls. He explains that, when the bulls come out of the pen, you forget everything else. Physical danger brings clarity in the mind. Inevitably, the Pamplona festival evokes Ernest Hemingway. Van Mersbergen avoids Hemingway’s contagious style with dexterity. Instead, he parodies Hemingway’s rather limited ideas on how a man of action should live. Danny, with whom we at first sympathise, turns out to act foolishly in Pamplona and to have acted basely in Holland. No ‘grace under pressure’. Rather, Danny and Robert, both alienated, replace normal feelings with their different obsessions. (Michael Eaude)
Good – and sometimes even great – literature comes in all shapes and sizes and in the case of Peirene’s classy novellas, small is usually beautiful. But in Tomorrow Pamplona, a haunting and sometimes violent exploration of the masculine psyche, the power of the story lies not so much in its noir-style beauty as in its terse, testosterone-generated energy. (…)
Van Mersbergen’s spare, subtle, almost poetic style is a perfect match for a dual narrative journey which slowly reveals the secrets of a young boxer fleeing his lover’s betrayal, and a middle-aged husband and father seeking a dangerous reprieve from his dull, domestic routine. Violence, both professional and domestic, forms the backdrop to boxer Danny’s life. When he hitches a lift from insurance worker Robert, we know only that he is fleeing a brutal act of aggression and an unhappy relationship. (…)
As the two men head out on the long road journey through France and into Spain, the spoken and unspoken tension in the car heightens, culminating in the inevitable, explosive, adrenaline-fuelled bull run whose shocking conclusion will force both to confront harsh realities… Translated with insight and empathy by Laura Watkinson, this is an intriguing and intricate gem of a novel. Van Mersbergen’s tightly controlled prose skilfully conveys the overriding sense of repressed emotion and sheer physicality that drive a compelling and complex story. Conscience, confrontation, the cult of machismo and male insecurity all play a role in helping to make Tomorrow Pamplona an unforgettable journey. (Pam Norfolk)
Short fiction can still pack a punch, as demonstrated by the latest offering from Peirene Press, which specialises in publishing European short novels in translation. Its theme for 2011 is the ‘year of the man’, and there is a focus on stories with male protagonists. You can’t get two more macho subjects than boxing and bull running, and both are at the heart of Jan van Mersbergen’s homage to Ernest Hemingway.
En route to Pamplona’s bull run, Robert picks up fellow Dutchman Danny, a young boxer fleeing a betrayal and an act of violence. Robert gently probes his travelling companion, but Danny barely speaks. Instead, he mulls over the recent events that have led to his flight: the months of training for the legendary boxing promoter Gerard Varon, his passionate affair with Varon’s glamorous assistant, Ragna, and the moment when he brutally severed himself from them. Robert is a family man who works in insurance, but once a year he can forget both by participating in the thrill of the run. As he tells Danny, some treat the annual fiesta as a pilgrimage, an opportunity to wash away their sins, but for Robert, bull running is everything his life is not: ‘It’s a celebration. It’s danger. It’s real life.’ When Robert describes the emotional release (‘You run because you’ll die if you don’t … that’ll clear your mind in an instant.’), Danny decides to accompany him. Because clarity is just what he needs.
It is tempting to pin the label of ‘road novella’ on to Tomorrow Pamplona, since so much of it takes place on the long highways between Amsterdam and Pamplona. But the essential drama of the story lies in the boxing school where Danny trains, and during the adrenaline high of the bull run.
Tomorrow Pamplona deliberately echoes Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Van Mersbergen explores similar themes of alienation, and his spare prose succinctly expresses the angst of his two male protagonists – caused for Robert by the banality of his life, and for Danny by a lost love. Both men are wounded – either physically or emotionally. Once in Pamplona, you know that their stories will become irretrievably entwined, when a stranger remarks that Danny has the same look in his eye as the bulls. As he tracks back and forth between the dual narratives, moving inexorably to the double climax, van Mersbergen skilfully builds emotional intensity until the point when the boxer and bulls’ fury are finally unleashed. (Lucy Popescu)
Danny Clare is a boxer on the run in Amsterdam, apparently after his last fight. He manages to hitch a lift from the other protagonist, Robert, who’s heading for northern Spain and Pamplona, where he aims to run with the bulls. As they drive through France and the night, two stories emerge – Robert and Danny’s road trip and Danny’s own backstory. It’s the latter which provides the best parts of the novel – a series of original and convincing episodes from his career as a fighter and, just as persuasive, the story of his falling in love with a Thai woman who may or may not be the girlfriend of his promoter. Meanwhile, back in the present, there’s the bull run to face. An impressive work from a leading Dutch writer. (Harry Ritchie)
On the run from Amsterdam after some unspecified unpleasantness, boxer Danny thumbs a lift at a petrol station. In the car he waves down is Robert, a paunchy, middle-aged wage-slave who is on his way to run with the bulls at Pamplona as he does every year. Before you can say The Sun Also Rises, Danny agrees to join him. Slowly the secret of what Danny is fleeing is revealed. Flawlessly translated from Dutch, this account of thwarted and self-destructive masculinity is as punchy and lean as a gym-honed welterweight, although it’s a shame van Mersbergen doesn’t spend more time exploring the interior life of family-man Robert. It’s also hard to feel as sympathetic to the taciturn Danny as the author would perhaps like. A book that is likely to divide readers, possibly along gender lines. Where many may find a brutal beauty in the restrained emotions, others will simply smell macho bull. (Adrian Turpin)
The first paragraph of ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ by Jan van Mersbergen, my favourite book published by Peirene Press so far, is written in a style that reflects the physical actions of Danny, the boxer character who is being described. The first, short simple sentence ‘A boxer is running through the city’ contains an even number of syllables and when read with exaggerated stress, replicates the rhythm of the steady, strength building run. A box-er is run-ning through the cit-y.
The second sentence is long, but punctuated by commas and this creates different sized sections, which sit within the sentence. Every time a comma is used in this sentence, it creates a slight jerk, giving the reader a physical feeling like Danny is darting, or turning corners as the words describe. The different sized sections enhance this rhythmic feel of physical movement, mimicking the different sizes of the stretches of his run and indicating that Danny has passed into a different area, just as the text describes his passage through the landscape. As the text informs the reader that this is not, as they might have first believed, a normal training run, short, simple sentences appear one after the other. Each sentence is smaller and faster to read than the last as the paragraph nears its end, emphasising the feeling that his behaviour is getting wilder, perhaps more violent.
‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ (translated by Laura Watkinson), is an example of a novel where the content of the story is enhanced by the use of a sympathetic writing style. While the rest of the novel isn’t written using the same strict style rules that appear in the first paragraph, where the rhythm and sentence structure of the prose mirrors what is happening in the plot, there’s a simple clearness and cleanness in the prose of this first paragraph which is present in the rest of the text. I could say that this kind of writing seems to be used to present a text that is stylistically in sympathy with the sport of boxing, but that feels too general and open to misinterpretation. Saying all that and then calling the writing powerful, or forceful, is correct, but that makes ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ sound like a heavy weight affair of raw masculine aggression about the kind of sock to the jaw boxing seen in comics about super heroes. It’s not like that at all. (…)
Maybe I’d be better off saying that the writing is in sympathy with the particular boxer Jan van Mersbergen has chosen to portray, rather than in sympathy with boxing in general. That makes it easier to describe exactly what I mean. When I say Mersbergen has created a novel where the writing style reflects the physical power of Danny, the boxer I don’t want to conjure a Rocky like character, or a boxer lithe with panther like fluidity. The novel flicks back and forth from the present where Danny is feeling unknown consequences and the past where he is training for a big fight. In the present storyline Danny, is extremely self-contained and mildly vindictive. He possesses the kind of obvious sense of physical confidence that he probably never even thinks about, because it’s been part of him for so long. He could hurt anyone easily, but I wouldn’t call him powerful and yet he’s not exactly vulnerable. He’s just very in his head; the kind of character who makes you want to read on in case the mystery of his state is ever revealed, although you doubt it will be. He’s like a box full of potential, but unlike other boxing protagonists he seems to have no difficulty containing and channeling that potential into productivity. (…)
Van Mersbergen nicely flips the attitudes of Danny and Robert’s present day characters by including these flashbacks. Danny’s story is revealed, while on the journey with Robert he angrily conceals himself. Robert is verbose in the present, but by the end of the book the reader knows little about his situation. Why does he routinely leave his family to pick up hitchhikers and run with the bulls? Based on his reaction to women they meet on the trip, his repeated remarks about Kim Wilde’s sexiness, the reader might make some assumptions about his trips away, but he genuinely seems to love and respect his wife. (…)
‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ is a really spectacular novella, although I’m finding it hard to parse my feeling about the ending, the violence and Danny. How did the characters who exploited him expect to get away with their scheme, when they seem to just be living around the corner from him? And even though he was horrendously tricked into impregnating someone else’s wife, punching a pregnant woman and disabled man feels pretty much unacceptable. Robert’s wife’s reaction shows how strait forwardly despicable his actions appear to people who don’t know the whole story, but even knowing what Ragna did to him, I can’t find much excuse for his actions. I think Danny knows that though, his thoughts are never written in a way which tries to defend what he’s done ( although he does tell Robert the other man is ‘a filthy son-of-a-bitch’) and he tries to run away because he knows what he’s done is wrong. Thoughts?
I hope we’ll see more books by Jan van Mersbergen translated soon, soon, soon.
Scrawled in biro on the title page of my copy of Tomorrow Pamplona: “Olivia, Fight or Flight, that’s the question. Jan” At once a play on the oft-quoted Hamlet soliloquy: To be or not to be…, an echo of the animal-human response to fear and a lead into this startling novel, which, whilst never purporting to answer the question holds it ever shuddering, tight against the thread of the tale.
The story commences in apparent flight. The sentences short as the boxer’s steps, the reader is immediately there, galloping on the streets beside him, the reader too, breathless, enveloped in the hazy echo of sounds, trying to gather information, to draw sense, but running, as if away from those same sounds, that same sense. Danny Clare, a boxer, is running. Danny Clare is standing out in the rain at a petrol station and is picked up by Robert, a man who takes two days away from his family every year to run with the bulls in Pamplona.
Follows the voyage of two-men-just-met to and from the running of the bulls in Pamplona. And, parallel to this the unwinding of the events in Danny’s life that lead to the first scene, so that the end of the trip concurs with the beginning of the story, to the boxer running through the city. To the same question.
The trip is punctuated by images, shots seen from the window, stark and filmic, like the shards of memory that gnaw at Danny. His unwillingness to converse and his almost begrudging acceptance of dry clothes, food and drink from Robert seem set to impede any form of relationship between the two men. But, bereft of overt emotion, bereft of excitable bonding, an intimacy fast develops captured in the mere sharing of a bottle of water, the borrowing of a t-shirt. We are thus drawn to the characters, not through their conversation, their appearances or other superficial attributes, but through a subtler mechanism, through the intimate immediacy of the text, written in the present tense, that shoves the reader up close with these two unknowns, joining them in their voyage.
As this unexpected relationship forms and finds its own expression, so does the inevitability of return. The trip is a dizzy spin outside of life that offers perspective and an instant to dwell upon the most profound human questions, of love and exile. This is another artform that Jan van Mersbergen masters: writing life with the lightest of touches, refusing to furl it in psychology. As Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press writes: It is the idea of showing, not telling that I love in literature. Jan himself trumpets the strong simple story, as opposed to the political novel rife with opinions. In this sense the story could be described as a contemporary fable, and yet the tone isn’t preaching, there is no strict moral. It is in fact very hip, rather edgy and slightly sexy. A road movie in book form reads the blurb on the dustjacket and it is exactly that. An exquisite one.
The art of the novella, much like that of the Greek tragedy, an art excelled in by Peirene authors, is that of singular voices that absorb us utterly for a long moment. A moment that is changing, transformative. It is perhaps inappropriate to quote Yeats to this regard, perhaps not. Has not literature, has not very good literature the capacity to change us utterly? So that when we close the book, when we return to our day to day lives, much as the protagonists return from Pamplona to theirs, we are changed, something in our mindset, our bodystructure has altered, the way we see the world outside and within us has been tweaked.
So Tomorrow Pamplona undoes us, and for a moment puts us in touch with the vital so terribly present in the everyday. (Olivia Heal)
This is the contemporary adult, if slightly embittered, [male] road trip. Danny, a professional boxer on the run from some unnamable horror, meets Robert, a family man on his yearly pilgrimage to Pamplona. There’s not so much self-discovery here as there is a forcefully selective sifting of one’s life; not so much male bonding here as two men on the run doing said running together, and whatever destination will do. Eventually, we’ll feel as though Danny and Robert are simply stalling, having taken a step away from the usual trajectories of their individual lives. But Pamplona. Pamplona will push them forward, push them to finally act. (…) Both narratives course steadily, their ends inevitable. Danny’s story is already whole, mind you—it’s all in how van Mersbergen chooses to reveal details. It’s not unlike running your hands slowly over a woven cloth, and gently unraveling the threads to look at them more closely. Undone, yes, but this closer examination makes the entirety more whole than ever.
The structure paid off, though it initially made this a challenge for me to read. That is, it took me a long time before I resolved to finally read this book—I was too restless to settle down with it [—and then, it took me as long to think about it for this post, what I was going to say here—I was made too restless by the reaction it drew from me]. In Tomorrow Pamplona, that edge [that I can’t seem to define very well, haha] is omnipresent. The sentences are so tense, they’re almost brittle. To match/mirror the characters, their personalities. Their preoccupations. Their predominant moods. And, of course, the language effectively hurls the reader through the narratives, at the risk of agitated toe-tapping and pipe-puffing and repeated blinking and a hitched heart rate. Kudos to translator Laura Watkinson for capturing this terse-to-brittle brevity, a sharpness that goes from languor to urgency—I wonder how hard it must have been to restrain the language, to capture what van Mersbergen accomplished. And, see, the language is never static: there’s always room for poignancy, for the lyrical that resides even in such tension.
Yes, this book put me through the wringer. Reading it, and thinking about it afterward. It’s—forgive the pun—a heavyweight. On the one hand, it brings a marked diversity to the book list offered by small publisher Peirene Press. On the other hand, it is a very, very good book, made better because I resisted it at first, made better because I am rather glad that I, and many [more] non-Dutch-speaking readers, had the opportunity to read this. (Sasha)
This book has received so much blogging hype that I had to see for myself. Is it worth the hype? No, it’s just a nice book of which there are so many. It was a good read, in a way. I think this book may be typically Dutch, or at least, we have many more books like this. Many of the younger generation of writers have a similar understated writing style. And the number of pages is in the range of many literary fiction books in the Netherlands, too. The writing style was great. A very understated book, not a word too many. Generally short paragraphs and a lot of dialogue. Still, if it wasn’t for that, I would have given the book 3 stars. My problem: I don’t care one bit about boxers. In fact, I prefer not to read about them and their (often shady) world. Furthermore, I don’t like men with an abundance of muscle or men that may explode into a rage for no obvious reason at all. I don’t like the Pamplona bull stuff either. Bulls in Pamplona are scary, dangerous and even deadly animals. I wish everyone luck who thinks they should participate in an event like that, but I don’t need to know about it, or read about it. So, there was very little for me in this book to like. But the story was well-set up and the reader slowly starts to understand what happened to Danny. That was well done, and if I had liked the locations and situations of the book better, it would have been a really good book for me. The only thing I could sort-of associate with in a positive way, was the drive to Spain – which I’ve done, albeit a different route. **** (Judith)
I can picture the intensity in the car, Robert driving fast and the deep silence of Danny’s thoughts filling the car. We learn how Danny met and lost his love, we learn about his boxing training, the control, dedication and the testing. In Pamplona I sense Danny regains some of his control over his run. In Robert Danny finds kinship in his fellow man, a silent understanding. Tomorrow Pamplona is both fast and slow, as if moments in a boxing match have been slowed down for analysis, before throwing us back in the thick of the moment. Jan’s achieves this by simple and fast writing, which drives Tomorrow Pamplona to a fitting conclusion, one that surprised me. Whilst Jan drip feeds Danny’s story to the reader building up a tension to the time when the pictures in the readers mind are confirmed. It is this slow revealing that hooked me, amongst the fast pace of the writing. Tomorrow Pamplona is a story about men dealing with escape and what to do with that escape to make it purposeful. Whilst the Bull Run and the boxing provides the energy it is the softness of Tomorrow Pamplona which draws you into the lives of Robert and Danny and provides insight into their decision, providing a balanced male perspective. (Andy Harrod)
Tomorrow Pamplona is the fifth title from the ever-interesting Peirene Press, this time by Dutch author van Mersbergen (in the interests of fairness, I should declare that I know Laura Watkinson, the translator). As the publisher, Meike Ziervogel, notes in her brief introduction, the book is not quite as simple and straightforward as its direct style may at first suggest. There’s a twitchiness to the prose that mirrors the nervous energy Danny has as a boxer; for example, the scenes on the road often end it what feels like an extraneous detail, as though to suggest a kind of restless looking-around. There are three scenes in particular which stand out to me as most effectively utilising the characterisation of Danny as a boxer, and the physicality which comes with that: the opening scene of Danny travelling on foot; the sequence at the Bull Run itself, where one of the key plot events takes place; and the critical incident that set Danny on the road. The book is engaging throughout, but I found those three scenes especially powerful. There’s also an effective contrast between the two travellers, with Robert’s view of the Bull Run as an escape from everyday life coming across as rather naïve (and, ultimately, carrying a bitterly ironic twist) when compared to the burden from which Danny seeks to escape. Tomorrow Pamplona is yet another great read from Peirene. (David Hebblethwaite)
The two short extracts so far will give a you taste already of the short, spare sentences employed by van Mersbergen. Without wanting to stretch the boxing analogies too far there is something blunt and punchy about the prose that mirrors the guarded exchanges of male conversation. Unfortunately there is also something of a fist in the face about some of the images and metaphors employed along the way. When they pass a lorry on its side and spot its cargo of chickens failing to take the opportunity of escape that would be enough without the ensuing conversation to spell it all out. There are a couple of moments like this that can make a slim book feel heavy-handed but they come early on and are particularly surprising given the lightness with which van Mersbergen moves around his narrative. (…) What happens to Danny and Robert in Pamplona will force them both (even Robert who has managed to treat his annual reckoning with the bulls as a kind of atonement for his hinted-at philandering) to confront their existence. They may have covered hundreds of miles on the road down to Spain but the bulk of their personal journey occurs in the few hundred feet of cobbled streets they share with each other, with the bulls, and with their conscience. (William Rycroft)
What stands out right away to the American reader is Robert and Danny’s road trip from the Netherlands to Spain. The cross-country odyssey has long been a popular theme in our literature, from westward expansion in the nineteenth century to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and more recent works like Katia Noyes’s Crashing America. At times, Tomorrow Pamplona feels familiar. There are run-down rest stops, little diners, and chance meetings with interesting individuals who leave their mark yet are never met again. But European nations are the size of American states, and their journey, though not a long one, takes Danny and Robert across international borders. There’s a psychological dimension present you just don’t get when you travel far but remain in the United States. Robert is leaving the country. Danny is fleeing it. Flight, juxtaposed against fight, is the driving force behind Tomorrow Pamplona. The twin metaphors of boxing and bullfighting build off one another as recreational activities founded on those opposing instincts, the primordial responses to fear and danger. As van Mersbergen himself observes, ‘In a bull-run the thrill comes from escape. In a boxing match you look the opponent in the eye.’ (…) Van Mersbergen further reinforces his motif with solid, direct prose that has won him comparisons to Hemingway. While such praise is often overstated (see To Hell with Cronjé) I believe the reference is particularly apt in this case given the masculine narrative with its taciturn but wounded hero and inclusion of the Pamplona bull run. Still, Tomorrow Pamplona is hardly a repeat of The Sun Also Rises. The influence is subdued and even played with in a scene where a Spanish cafe owner laments American writers turning the fiesta into a global tourist trap. Tomorrow Pamplona stands quite on its own as a terse, taut exploration of the psychology of reaction. It’s also a great gift idea for that guy who’s hard to shop for. (E.L. Fay)
That said a book about boxing, bull running and masculinity was always going to have to climb a mountain with this reader. While it didn’t reach the summit, neither was it left at base camp. But reviewing something that often confirmed pre-existing antipathies feels like a chore and is likely to cause a rift between the nymph and I. Time for something different. I have been reading the marketing blurb and other reviews with interest and find that much of the language is the same that I would use. It strikes me that those words have both positive and negative connotations. (…) Should a testosterone-fuelled narrative in the spirit of Hemingway and Kerouac exert a positive pull, read this. Should it sound like a load of bull, flee! P.S. I liked the ending. At least the two adventurers were man enough to face the music! *** (Lizzy Siddal)
Tomorrow Pamplona is a powerful book about internal demons, dissatisfaction, anger, remorse, and obsession. Written in spare language and finishing just short of 200 pages, this slim novel’s narrative is driven by the two main characters. Robert is looking for something, Danny is fleeing from something – and both men think what they need will be found on the cobbled streets of Pamplona with the scent of bulls in the air. This book is a relatively quick read and surprisingly compelling given that much of the story occurs inside a closed vehicle as it winds its way south from The Netherlands into Spain. It is Danny’s story that kept me turning the pages. Told in flashbacks, Danny’s secret is revealed slowly over the course of the book. Jan Van Mersbergen captures the internal conflict of Danny easily, uncovering a man whose life is not as simple as it first appears. Danny’s struggle to deal with a life-changing event is primarily internal, but this perspective is highly effective at providing the reader with a connection to the character that strengthens as the book unfolds. ****1/2 (Wendy Robards)
Tomorrow Pamplona is a book about almost everything and more – it is about love, family, betrayal, and all this on a road to self-discovery. On the path to knowing what it means to be human and what does one do at the crossroads of one’s life? So the book is about a road-trip – a strange trip at that, which takes place between a professional boxer and a family man. Both want to escape their routine existence. Both want a better life, according to them. And in that elusiveness of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they discover themselves and what they really want to be. Why is the book titled Tomorrow Pamplona? Because both of them are going to the Pamplona Bull Run, with the nagging thought that they have to eventually get back home. That is the situation with most of us – the drab and dull lives that we lead. Tomorrow Pamplona is written with a lot of heart and soul and that is why readers all over can relate to the book and what it says. For me, Tomorrow Pampona was one of those books that make you want to reassess your life – the do’s and the do nots. The want and the yearning to escape and may be that is why the book will hit a note and resonate in our hearts and minds long after the book is done with.
Were it a film, Tomorrow Pamplona would keep your eyes glued to the screen. Being a book, it keeps your eyes glued to its pages and makes your fingers itch with anticipation! To celebrate its publication day, here is what some lucky readers had to say about Jan van Mersbergen’s enthralling novel…
Sonya from London said: ‘This is the first time in a while that I have read a book written by a foreign author. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if I would enjoy it but I really did, so much so that I found it extremely hard to put down. This book was cleverly written and I certainly found it to be thought provoking. It’s not very long either, which is good sometimes when you don’t have too much time to read. It’s given me a taste for European Literature now and I hope to get the chance to read more books like this.’
David from Bolton said: ‘I have to admit that Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan Van Mersbergen probably wouldn’t have been my first choice of book but I’m glad I was offered the opportunity to read it. The book is short but is fast paced, tying in with the idea of the speed of the bulls, and Van Mersbergen doesn’t overload us with too much of the actual journey, instead using it as an opportunity to introduce us to the outgoing Robert, secretive Danny and the growth of the friendship between them.’ (4/5)
Alice from London said: ‘De Morgen tells us to expect ‘an intense reading experience,’ and Van Mersbergen doesn’t disappoint. This is the story of two very different men both looking for an escape; however fleeting. My favourite scene was a brief interlude, an overnight stop in the South of France where Danny encounters an elderly woman taking her nightly swim in the river. Her character was superbly drawn and the scene provided a much-needed glimmer of beauty in what is essentially a bleak novel. Nonetheless, it is a masterly exploration of the shifting dynamics between strangers, the destructive nature of obsessive love and our perceptions of modern masculinity. I would recommend reading it in one sitting to fully appreciate the tense cinematic qualities it conjures.’
Peirene press no 4, I finish it last week out 7th June. Well worth reading; one hell of a ride like grabbing the bull by the horns. (…) I start this book a little nervous, one surface it would seem my type of book I love road movies, but had little nagging voice saying is this not going be some book about machismo, which I wouldn’t enjoy as much as I ve like Hemingway’s books he has oft drifted towards this but I pleased to say, Jan’s book is about men and there souls and maybe a bit how we are all kids inside that love images of danger as a child and sometimes have to grasp them, it is about how we feel with love and loss as men. There have been loads of books written from a female perspective on love and life, but it was great to read a book that caught the male experience so well. I think we all are Danny at some point in our lives, the confused let down in love guy that maybe can’t get a hold of his feels, I for one associated with him. Robert on the other hand is the man we hope to be in some ways, a family man happy but still want to touch those dreams of childhood by random acts of madness like going to the running of the bulls. So he feels more alive and those a better family man. As the book unfold Danny became more like Robert, and vice versus Robert became a bit of Danny in his own way. I would love this as a film. (Stuart Allen)
An intensive look at ourselves, humans, that can’t really be summed up. (…) Every now and then a book comes into my life where I know that there is a deeper meaning in the words but I have trouble finding it. Tomorrow Pamplona is one of them. This isn’t to say that it is too highbrow to be fully enjoyed, rather that the way Van Mersbergen has told his tale requires the reader’s undivided attention. Of course you’ll be wondering if I worked it out by the end, and the answer is yes, at least sort of. But although this not knowing is frustrating it gives the book a real staying power. I find myself wanting to pass my copy around for others to read, not just because it would make an interesting discussion but because I think part of the way to gain a truer understanding is to talk about it with at least a few people. One thing that this reviewer will definitely be musing over for some time is just who Robert is or what he is supposed to signify. I got the feeling that although he’s incredibly regular there is something else about him.
If Paulo Coelho provides food for thought then Van Mersbergen provides the ingredients – but you’ll have to roast the chicken yourself. And you get less of a finished story than a lot of books that leave you with multiple options for what happens next – yet at the same time you instinctively know what will happen.
This book is spiritual, borders on angst, and may even be psychological. One of the themes is inevitably coping with loss, Danny’s development focuses on it, and we see this right at the beginning where he copes by leaving home, and later when a minor character copes by staying where the loss occurred. And characters are everything in this book. Robert may seem to take a metaphorical backseat (and again I wonder about who he is, is his position as car driver relevant in a spiritual sense to Danny) but he is as important as Danny, albeit that the book revolves around the latter. The stage is Pamplona but it’s more about how the place reflects the mind at the time and what is needed by that person. There is a beautiful simplicity in the way the novel is written. Told in both present tense and flashbacks, it seems abstract, disjointed even, but in fact it is meticulously detailed – Van Mersbergen has thought deeply about human actions and the world around us, and used words that read like a soothing lullaby. The style isn’t particularly poetic and yet the way it makes you feel is as though you’re reading a poem. (…)
Never before have I felt I’ve given a book such an unsatisfactory write up, but I know that I could do no more without revealing it’s entire contents. Truly the only way you are going to find out if this book is worth your time is to read it, because it’s really not the sort of thing you can decide upon without having the words in your own hands.
This book has been described as a road movie & it’s easy to see it as such, the prose, the tight, short sentences that pull you forward like the engine of some muscle car, as we follow this strange pair, Danny, brooding and curt with a suppressed rage so immense you can feel it burning off the page, and Robert, the friendly, talkative family man who feels the need to risk it all, to chance his life in the bull run. As the car takes them ever onwards towards Pamplona, we also follow the route backwards, becoming aware of the chain of events that led to Danny running, to a moment so explosive and powerful, a climax shocking, but with an inevitability that mirrors the bulls and their stampede. (…) The writing had me hooked, it’s spare, muscular sentences stripped of all unnecessary weight, had me front seat, smack bang in the middle of a road movie, following every twist & turn of the tale, a big grin on my face. Loving it.
Short, powerful sentences, compact paragraphs, understated emotion. Boxing and Spanish bulls, and even an oblique reference to The Sun Also Rises. But this tale of boxer and family man making their way to the running of the bulls at Pamplona is very much its own beast, and defies the easy comparison to Hemingway. (…) It is in the car, sentence by terse sentence that we get an acute sense of just who Danny is. The dialogue is short, stilted but feels unforced and authentic in its brevity. On occasion poetic in its sparsity. (…) In Tomorrow Pamplona we find a story that delights in hiding emotion beneath the surface, and the rich sentences of this novella are flawlessly rendered in to English by Laura Watkinson. Van Mersbergen’s prose runs as quickly as the bulls, and we are left breathless at the journey.
There’s a wonderful dreaminess about the passages in Pamplona itself. It’s an experience which is supposed to be visceral and to make them feel alive, and yet Danny seems more detached than ever. It’s as if he’s a spectator to events that are happening to someone else. Even as the bulls are charging, nothing seems real. Afterwards neither he nor Robert can remember much about the whole thing, other than vague impressions of colour. Tomorrow Pamplona is a novel that manages to convey a lot despite its relatively short length, its spare writing style and the elusiveness of its main character. As Danny is mumbling a one-word evasion or playing with the door of a toy car, we have space as readers to fill in the blanks. As more of the back-story gets filled in through flashbacks, we get more information to help us hone our guesswork, and by the end we arrive at something like an understanding of Danny’s character, as far as such a thing is possible. It’s a satisfying structure, and results in an intriguing novel that reveals its secrets gradually and builds suspense as the car rolls towards Pamplona.
Yes, this story packs a punch as it was once said by the publisher. It had me reeling. Throughout the book you feel, somehow, that this might be what is coming, but you don’t want to believe it – at least I didn’t. And then when, in the end, you find out that your worst fears were right somehow, you are left to wonder just what to think, how to judge, if you even should. (…) I so often proclaimed that Dutch literature isn’t for me. And part of the publicity for this book was that it had two great sex scenes in under 200 pages. And I admit, I became a little more doubtful of whether this was the book for me. But, I was wrong to doubt. The sex scenes didn’t bother me and the story is a great one, that is, more importantly, told in a superb manner.
The style of the book is really what made me enjoy Tomorrow Pamplona so much. The narrative has an uncommon flow to it. The writing is fast paced, and yet it allows you room to breathe. And once Danny and Robert are in Pamplona, time almost seems to stop. It made me want to push time on, somehow, push the characters a little too. And that is the moment I realised that Van Mersbergen succeeded, since he engaged me, so much so that I wanted to help the characters, do something for them, help them make a decision whether they should run or face what is coming for them. And it is that very fact, the fact that I cared, which made the ending all the more intense and confusing.
Tomorrow Pamplona is a very urgent read. It hides so much anger and frustration just below the surface that at times it scared me a little. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Really, it is one of the true strengths of the book. What this book showed me is that I can appreciate Dutch literature, even the more fast-paced kind. The kind I used to be doubtful about before, but now feel really excited about. And that is saying something. Jan van Mersbergen proved how wrong I was, scorning Dutch literature all these years. There, I have admitted I was wrong.
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. (…) 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. (…) 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 (Annabel Gaskell)
This quiet book really captivated me, and in the end surprised me a great deal. Van Mersbergen weaves a tale between the present travels of Danny and Robert first to Pamplona and then home again at the same time as the story of Danny’s recent past is told. The jumping between the two time periods is done seamlessly but without confusion. By telling part of the story in retrospect the reader is given a sense of mystery. What has made Danny run. The different times merge at the end of the book delivering a surprise ending I am not sure if I can tell you why the book surprised me without ruining it for you but I will tell you that the surprise was like a punch in the gut, a punch that Danny could have delivered. For me the story was a story about the futility of running from your life. No matter what your past holds, no matter which escape you try and make, you will have to face it some day. And although the book doesn’t say it out right I have to believe that you also get what you deserve. No matter if you make the right decisions in other matters, you still have to face the wrong ones you made. (…) This isn’t a long book. It isn’t a book that utters a lot of words. It is a quiet book that holds a lot of truths and a great story. I highly recommend it.
Tomorrow Pamplona is an exploration of the dark, aggressive aspects of personality that lurk beneath a seemingly pleasant exterior. Both men seem to only feel ‘alive’ in violent, threatening situations. When Danny stands stock-still and stares in the face of the charging bull, there’s a sense of two instinctively violent, powerful minds opposing each other. I’m not sure that I sympathised very much with either of the main characters and that may have influenced my feelings about the book as a whole. It’s not the most disturbing book I’ve read but there’s a feeling of latent violence throughout that is more common in thrillers/whodunnits than in literary fiction. **** (Maryom)
Tomorrow Pamplona starts in the Netherlands, where Danny, a boxer, is running through the streets: from what, we don’t know; to where, he doesn’t seem to know himself. After standing in the rain, waiting for someone to take pity on him and give him a lift to wherever it is that he’s heading, he is picked up by Robert, a family man on his usual annual getaway to Pamplona, where he will participate in the world-famous running of the bulls. And so begins a rather unexpected road trip… As the story unfolds, we are treated to two separate strands. The first, told in a present tense which heightens tension and brings us closer to the action, relates the eventful journey Danny and Robert make to Pamplona. The second, told in the past tense, gradually fills in the few months leading up to the day the two men meet. Both parts begin very quickly, events following one another rapidly, before slowing down gradually as the protagonists approach Spain. Towards the end, the pace speeds up again, dragging the reader towards the inevitable (and shattering) climax. It’s a hell of a ride. (…)
Tomorrow Pamplona packs a lot into its slender bulk, but, at times, Danny is not the only one who is sparing with words. Although the middle sections are a little more descriptive, Van Mersbergen begins the story with extremely sparse prose, much closer on the Hemingway-Proust spectrum to the American writer than the French. Of course, this may well be intentional; the subject matter is reminiscent of old Ernest, and there’s even a slight nod in the direction of The Sun Also Rises in a café scene on the Spanish border. As mentioned above (and I may well be alone here), I felt a sense of lengthening of time though towards the middle of the book as the hour of the running of the bulls approached. Events appeared to slow down, until time suddenly… stopped. And then began to speed up again.
The key to the book is the secret of Danny’s flight (and silence), but that’s something you’ll have to find out for yourself – and I highly recommend that you do. Tomorrow Pamplona is out in June, hopefully available at The Book Depository and Amazon, and it is well worth reading. There’s one thing I got from this book that I can tell you though: you can’t run from fate, but you can (and should) run from bulls…(Tony Malone)
And then there are the sex scenes with Ragna. There is nothing romantic about their emotionless copulation, I tell you, it’s just plain porn. (…) But I digress. The story itself is well constructed. The road trip to Spain, riddled with uncomfortable silences and snarled one-liners, is the perfect vehicle for Danny to relive his recent memories and come to a final decision. The tension (what is he running from?) is increased to finally reveal a truth that is almost too terrible to bear. (Chinoiseries)
I loved this book! Told in a simple, but effective style, it draws you in to it’s web and you are unable to put it down. On the surface, it has been compared to “a road movie in book form” and, like most road movies, there is so much more to be gleaned from the story.
Danny is a fairly successful boxer. He is running (literally) from a doomed love affair which has left him raw in it’s betrayal. Robert is a suburban family man who is making a yearly trip to Spain for the twelfth time. The two men’s paths cross when Danny is offered a lift in Robert’s car…..chiefly because Robert takes pity on the rain soaked Danny. Their stilted dialogue is wonderfully written and Robert’s off hand kindness is so well portrayed, even though trying to extract any information from Danny is like pulling hen’s teeth! Robert is off to Pamplona to the festival of the bulls. For the uninitiated, men don white shirts and red neckerchiefs in order to run from at least six huge bulls released in to the cobbled streets of the Spanish town. True, it seems like madness, but according to Robert there is nothing better and every man has his own reason for being there. Does Danny want to go with him? Well he has nowhere else to be, so why not?
Throughout their journey, the author, Jan Van Mersbergen, depicts these wonderful little cameos of ordinary people in everyday situations, but it is the clarity of these encounters which is so absorbing and, dare I say it, addictive. This is impeccable writing and wonderful characterization and is a joy to read. The ending is powerful and shocking, but still leaves the reader with questions to ask. I like that in a book, as it gives you a reason to put your own perspective on the story and guarantees it remains in your memory long after you turn the last page.
This book is the fifth release by Peirene and I truly do not know how they do it! Every title, from all over Europe, has been first class and beautifully translated in to English. “Tomorrow Pamplona” can be added to that faultless record. (Teresa Jewett)
As I think I do with every review of a Peirene offering I can’t help but start by saying that this book is another beautiful package. They really do know how to present a gorgeous book. Beautiful design, soft feel, well designed and laid out. I do hope that further years keep the same design layout! (…) I enjoyed the way the train of thoughts were used to give clues to the past. (…) This was an interesting read but. (…) Recommended to all who enjoy literary fiction and who want to try some Dutch literature. **** (Alasdair McKie)
Unstoppable – I loved this book! Told in a simple, but effective style, it draws you in to it’s web and you are unable to put it down. On the surface, it has been compared to “a road movie in book form” and, like most road movies, there is so much more to be gleaned from the story. (…) You might at first be attracted to this wonderful book by its look in a bookshop: indeed Peirene Press books are always incredibly soft, elegant and beautiful, hard to resist even as an object. But then what content too! This fifth one ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ I found impossible to stop reading. It has an immediacy and vividness that grabs you instantly (…) This could be called a highly literary noir thriller. Yes it would also make a terrific film with the right director. The sparse, minimalist nearly, style is a beauty to read and the story is one of those that remains in your mind with a powerful yet delicate impact. It could be described as a ‘masculine’ story because Danny is a boxer, and because men will perhaps identify with the difficulty of expressing strong emotions more than women, but it certainly is not a book for men only to read ! Far from it. It beholds a total quality all around of great writing (and translation), breathless suspense, noire atmosphere and emotional pull. Five stars indeed. *****
An exceptional read – I loved this book! Told in a simple, but effective style, it draws you in to it’s web and you are unable to put it down. On the surface, it has been compared to “a road movie in book form” and, like most road movies, there is so much more to be gleaned from the story. (…) Throughout their journey, the author, Jan Van Mersbergen, depicts these wonderful little cameos of ordinary people in everyday situations, but it is the clarity of these encounters which is so absorbing and, dare I say it, addictive. This is impeccable writing and wonderful characterization and is a joy to read. The ending is powerful and shocking, but still leaves the reader with questions to ask.
A thought provoking read! – This is the first time in a while that I have read a book written by a foreign author. To be honest I wasn’t even sure if I would enjoy it but I really did, so much so that I found it extremely hard to put down. Praise has to be given also to Laura Watkinson who made a really good job of translating this novel into English. (…) This book was cleverly written and I certainly found it to be thought provoking. Its not very long either, which is good sometimes when you don’t have too much time to read. It’s given me a taste for European Literature now and I hope to get the chance to read more books like this.
Reactions on twitter
I’ve read ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ & ‘The Murder of Halland’ almost in one sitting. Great!
I finished ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ while away in Spain – sooooo good!
BkRw: Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan Van Mersbergen: Powerful, sometimes claustrophobic tale of a boxer, his lover, her lover & a bull. V skilful.
Goodness! Read #TmrwPamplona yesterday…once-again-without-drawing-breath,once-again-flawless>yet another exquisite book from @PeirenePress / …utter depth of life/death/love dealt with such a light touch;so un-psychological(phew) / that and beautifully purged language combined with such sharp/stark imagery
Tomorrow Pamplona deals with a very male road-trip, & protagonists’ need both for freedom and emotional intimacy.
Finished Tomorrow Pamplona. I’m happy to say that it’s good.
I really enjoyed reading ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ (…) – an excellent book!
Haven’t been able to settle in a book since I finished TOMORROW PAMPLONA from @PeirenePress so no #fridayreads from me today.
Thoroughly enjoying ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ – it’s so absorbing I almost missed my tube stop this morning!
Feeling very hippy at the local organic bakery with soup freshly baked brea & TOMORROW PAMPLONA from @PeirenePress Perfection
Loving tomorrow pamplona.
Just closed Tomorrow Pamplona. BRILLIANT. Practically in tears. So powerful. Will remain an unforgettable read. (…) It’s such a strong, tense, moving (& on the move!) story u cant stop
@parrishlantern / (2) / (3)
I finished my copy of Tomorrow Pamplona.. Loved it, ending is really powerful & shocking. (…) Tomorrow Pamplona is a road movie in the sense that it pulls you along like the engine of some big Muscle car. (…) Tomorrow Pamplona hides behind its simple facade, a complex emotional tale, like the main protagonist behind his monosyllables.
Tomorrow pamplona is one hell of a ride…
Thoroughly enjoyed Tomorrow Pamplona! (half) wish it didn’t end where it did, but I guess that’s not your fault! Good read 🙂