Peirene Press Readathon, No. 6: 'Tomorrow Pamplona' by Jan van Mersbergen

Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen is the fifth book in the epic Peirene Press Readathon that Sam and I are in the midst of, where we read all nine of the Peirene Press books currently published, and then discuss them thematically in threes. This book is the second in the 'Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy' series. For those who don't know, Peirene Press is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which have not been translated into English prior to now. 

Tomorrow Pamplona is about Danny, a Dutch boxer who we find stood hitch-hiking on the side of the motorway, soaked to the skin, who is picked up by Robert, who is on his way to Pamplona to participate in the famed annual bull run there. Eventually he invites Danny to travel all the way with him, which Danny accepts, and it is interesting to note the contrast in circumstances between Robert, a family man who runs with the bulls annually to alleviate some of the boredom and responsibility of family life, and Danny, who is running from a bad circumstance, the actual details of which only become clear as the book progresses. One has too much order, one has too much chaos, and neither know how to deal with it. Let's just say, it became clear to me early on why this book was part of a series exploring male dilemma and intimacy issues.

I found Robert and Danny both to be interesting characters, increasingly so as the book progresses; I wasn't immediately grabbed by the first few pages. Danny is the central figure and through chronologically-arranged flashbacks we find out what lead to the horrific incident that has left him on the run, as he explores them on the course of the drive from the Netherlands to Pamplona inside his own head. You'd think the bull run would be the actual climax of this book, but it's not: the key moments come as they make decisions about the future and how to face it, or not, as the case may be.

This book made me sad for men. The pervading message of it, as communicated to me, is that literally staring down a bull or patting a crocodile is easier than having an honest conversation with a woman you're in love with. I can't even imagine being that emotionally inarticulate. Obviously, not all men are like this (thank god), but the men in this book were not unfamiliar to me, and I'm sure they wouldn't be to any reader. Anyway, male judgements aside, this book is macho through and through, in theme and character and tense, unromantic language, and the women in it are either distant wives, deceitful girlfriends or waitresses to be ogled at; they seem to have little idea, the pair of them, how to really cross this great gender divide to where real intimacy lies. Robert, the family man, even describes the birth of his children as an awe-inspiring but ultimately alienating experience:

Do you know what the problem is with childbirth? You can't do a bloody thing. As a man, you can be there with her, but there's sod all you can actually do...
...So you just stand there looking. Well, that's what I did. I didn't have a clue what to do...I kept on saying: You can do it, you can do it. Until finally she just screamed at me to shut up. With the second one, I just sat by the bed and kept my mouth shut...All that time you're just sitting there. And you know what? You'd rather be facing the bulls.
I mean, I can't even imagine.

As you may be beginning to guess, the tone of this book owes rather a large debt to a certain Mr. Hemingway, with the bulls and the machismo and lots of talk of blood pumping and staring down the barrels of things, which, rather pleasingly, is something van Mersbergen readily acknowledges:
He shows them a framed photograph that's screwed to the wall.
This is Esteban Domeño.
It's a portrait of a man with a dark moustache. He's wearing a black jacket and a hat.
Esteban, the man repeats. He sniffs. They even took his name from him.
What do you mean?
His name. Esteban Domeño. An American wrote a book about the fiesta. He's 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...
I enjoyed this contextual reference to The Sun Also Rises, which felt delightfully meta, and I enjoyed this book as a whole, especially as it progressed. 

My only bug-bear would be that the dialogue is not demarcated in any way, as there are no speech marks or anything, but this is not the only book guilty of that. I'd also have appreciated it if the language had been a bit less sparse - although an excellent imitation, I didn't hear a deep echoing sadness between the words, as I did when I read The Old Man and the Sea the other day - but it was a good fit for the topic and themes of the book, and added to the deliberate intensity of the experience. 

I look forward to the third book in the present series, Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (FYI, I can't see that title without playing the Cabaret song in my head) and also the discussion post about the Male Dilemma series, which Sam will be hosting the Thursday after next.

Other readathon reviews:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine)
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (mine)
¦ (Sam's)
Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (mine)
¦ (Sam's) 
Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen (Sam's)

 Title: Tomorrow Pamplona
Author: Jan van Mersbergen, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson
Date: Original 2007, translation 2011
Format: Paperback, 189 pages, and I was sent it by Peirene Press for review as part of this readathon series.



  1. As I've commented over at Tony Library, I was surprised by the level of violence in this. Something I missed though was the 'subtitle' to this series - Quests for Intimacy - and I'm thinking of re-reading all 3 with this in mind and seeing if my opinion changes.

    1. Yes Maryom, I agree. I didn't discuss it too much in my review as I didn't want to include too many spoilers, but yes, the violence was vividly drawn and really quite extreme.

      That's interesting too about forgetting the subtitle as you might have seen when Sam and I did the 'Female Voices' discussion post, we forgot it on that too, and knowing it made all the difference. I'd recommend a re-read in any case :)

  2. Totally different I was in this from the first sentence could see this in wide screen format. Robert's role was the less clear although the sense of alienation rang clear.

    1. That's true - what is Robert's role? To get Danny to verbalise parts of the story? To provide a reason and, literally, a vehicle to get Danny to Pamplona? It would have never occurred to him to go otherwise.

      Glad you enjoyed it.


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