Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Maybe bull running's a bit like boxing, . . ."

Tomorrow Pamplona
By Jan van Mersbergen
Translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson
189 pages
Peirene Press
June 6, 2011

But with a whole load of people against a bunch of mad bulls instead of just two men.

Jan van Mersbergen (1971-) is the author of five novels, beginning with De grasbijter in 2001. Number 4 was 2007's Morgen zjin we in Pamplona (Tomorrow Pamplona). In meantime he also writes for sports magazines and became editor of the literary magazine De Revisor in 2010.

Tomorrow Pamplona tells the story of Danny, a rising star in the boxing world until the violent end of a love affair forced him to flee. With no plan in mind, he hitches a ride with an insurance salesman named Robert, who is embarking on his annual excursion to the Pamplona bull run. To Robert, the rush and excitement represent a break from the routine of work and family. With a disaster behind him and nowhere to go, Danny agrees to face the bulls himself.

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 encounters 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." There are moments of motion - the escape that jumpstarts the story, the car on the road, the bulls - and pauses in between, like the overnight stay at a park in France, characterized by its quiet nocturnal mood, and Danny's memories of his time with Ragna. There are also the images of the chickens idling besides their overturned truck and the passivity of the doomed cows in a trailer bound for a slaughterhouse, both of which throw into doubt the oft-heard judgment that facing adversary is preferable to escape. The choice between two options is not always black and white.

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.

Review Copy


Richard said...

Not sure a Hemingway imitator is what I'm looking for these days but a Dutch Hemingway imitator would at least be something new. Is there anything interesting going on from a Dutchmen in Spain angle or is it more about the story by that point?

Amy said...

Great review, you say it all so well!

Eileen said...

Sorry for the delay in replying.

Richard: While I wouldn't call van Mersbergen a Hemingway imitator, the influence is definitely there. It's not really a culturally bound story either. It has a very international set of characters, but the themes are pretty universal - fight/flight/ love affair gone bad, road trip, male bonding, etc. So there's really no "Dutchman in Spain" angle; it's more, "guy fleeing his past arrives at a dangerous festival in another country." You might like it.

Amy: Thanks!

Wendy said...

This is such a great review of this book - you said things much better than I did! Glad to see you also appreciated the prose in this one :)

Related Posts with Thumbnails