Book review: Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen

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One of the joys of picking up a book from Peirene Press is the knowledge that each slim volume offers a very different reading experience.

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.

Peirene specialises in contemporary European literature in English translation and 2011 is their Year of the Man – male authors, male protagonists, male views of the world.

Tomorrow Pamplona follows two disparate Dutchmen as they head for the famous bull run in Spain ... both are running away but both know that they cannot escape forever the truths that have made their lives emotionally unstable.

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.

Robert is heading to Pamplona for the twelfth year in a row. He works all year for his family, he says, and the bull run is his release. ‘It’

s like an express pilgrimage: three minutes of running have the same result as months of crawling.’

Danny, a man burning with suppressed rage and desperately seeking to wipe out memories of past events, is lured by Robert’s promise that when the bulls are coming after you, ‘you run because you’ll die if you don’t. I’m telling you, that’ll clear your mind in an instant.’

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.

(Peirene, paperback, £8.99)