Celebrated author Jan van Mersbergen’s Tomorrow Pamplona was the fifth book upon the wonderful Peirene Press list of novellas in translation. In this instance, the tale was originally written in Dutch, and has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson. De Morgen calls this ‘an intense reading experience… Van Mersbergen tells what needs to be told and not a word more’.
From the first, I did like the idea of the chance encounter which the whole plot revolves around; a professional boxer and the father of a young child ‘meet by chance on a journey to the Pamplona Bull Run. The boxer is fleeing an unhappy love. The father hopes to escape his dull routine. Both know that, actually, they will have to return to the place each calls “home”‘. Tomorrow Pamplona has a storyline which I would not automatically be drawn to. However, I have very much enjoyed the majority of Peirene’s publications, and have high hopes for everything which they painstakingly translate and reprint.
At the outset, Tomorrow Pamplona appears to be very well paced, and the translation, particularly with regard to the sections which feature the boxer, Danny Clare, has such a rhythm to it. The balance between action and imagery has been well realised: ‘He crosses a busy main road and runs into a park. He comes to a patch of grass with a bronze statue in the centre, a woman holding a child in the air as though she wants to entrust it to the clouds’. With regard to the characters, however, the prose does tend to veer toward the relatively simplistic. The lack of complexity in sentence structure takes something away from the story as far as I am concerned; it felt like rather a plodding reading experience after the first few pages, and it’s not a process which I can say I very much enjoyed.
There was no immediate captivation here for me. Whilst the scene was set rather well at the beginning, if anything caught my attention, I felt that it would be in the relationship which built up between Danny and the father, Robert, with whom he travels. The latter picks up Danny whilst he is hitchhiking, and asks him to come along on the journey; he duly accepts. Robert’s description of the trip, which he makes each year, and the passion which it strikes in him has been well evoked: ‘Tomorrow morning I’m going to come face to face with a bunch of bulls, Robert continues. He taps the steering wheel. I’ll be standing there on one of those streets in Pamplona, in my white shirt, together with all those other people in their white shirts. Then they let the bulls out and you’d better start running’. It is his pilgrimage of sorts. ‘It’s a tradition, Robert continues. It’s a celebration. It’s danger. It’s real life’.
I found a lot of the writing about Danny’s fights and preparation for them a little repetitive; perhaps deliberately so, I’m not entirely sure. There was no wonder for me here; I did not connect with any of the characters, as I so often tend to do with Peirene’s novellas. Whilst it was an okay read on the whole, it stirred no strong feelings within me, and it isn’t anything which I would recommend.