Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen (Peirene)

BOOK REVIEW

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.

A boxer is running through the city.

But he’s running faster than usual.   His breathing is out of control.  His eyes are wide.  

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.

For a man who doesn’t have a specific place in mind, Pamplona is a great destination.  Maybe the best destination of all.

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.

I cannot claim to have a word of Dutch, so I can only accept that Laura Watkinson’s flawless writing fluidly concurs with the original.  For, the force of the story lies in that it is a simple tale told with simple words, a vocabulary purged of the unnecessary, of the flowery, stripped to the bare threads of action.  Jan van Mersbergen is an artist of the understated, of the essential, and yet crucial moments are punched out with the power and dexterity of a talented boxer, and hit right to the core.

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 at 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.

Tomorrow Pamplona  by Jan van Mersbergen

Translated by Laura Watkinson

Peirene Press, London, 2011.

ISBN 9780956284044

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