Peirene, £8.99, 189pp. £8.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Tomorrow Pamplona, By Jan van Mersbergen, trans. Laura Watkinson
Friday 24 June 2011
Danny is a professional boxer. He is fleeing Holland, where the rage he still feels led him to an unspecified violent act. Robert is driving to Pamplona. For years he has taken a week off from his family and nine-to-five job to run before the bulls in the festival. Robert picks Danny up and they drive together across France.
The story is told from Danny's point of view. This novel's short sections alternate between the present and recent past. 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.
Tomorrow Pamplona is the fifth in Peirene's series of short, literary novels in translation. This one passes the basic test: after a page you forget completely you are reading in translation. This independent publisher produces its small-format paper-backs beautifully. They are the ideal read on a trip to a European destination. This one's a great start if you haven't seen others in the series.
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