Tomorrow PamplonaJan van Mersbergen
A story about anger, aggression and the desire for intimacy by a rising star of modern Dutch literature.
A professional boxer and a family man 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, eventually, they will have to return to the place each calls “home”.
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Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
I adore the deceptive simplicity of this story. On the surface, the fast moving plot, the short sentences, the ordinary words make the text as straightforward as punches in a boxing match. But just as physical conflict stirs deep emotions, so too does this book as it focuses on a single question: how do you choose between flight and fight?
Written by Jan van Mersbergen.
Translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson.
Male Dilemma series
180pp, Paperback with Flaps, £8.99
Jan van Mersbergen, born 1971, stands at the forefront of new Dutch writing. He has completed eight novels. His concise and tense style has earned him critical acclaim and a wide readership. Morgen zijn we in Pamplona was first published in Dutch in 2007 and has already been translated into German and French.
Laura Watkinson studied languages at Oxford and Cambridge. She translates literary fiction from Dutch, German and Italian. She lives in Amsterdam.
‘As he tracks back and forth between the dual narratives, moving inexorably to the double climax, van Mersbergen skilfully builds emotional intensity until the point when the boxer and bulls’ fury are finally unleashed.’ The Independent on Sunday
‘An impressive work from a leading Dutch writer.’ Daily Mail
‘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.’ Lancashire Evening Post
‘Flawlessly translated from Dutch … A book that is likely to divide readers, possibly along gender lines.’ Adrian Turpin, Financial Times
‘A refreshing change from the byzantine complexities of all too many contemporary novels.’ New Books Magazine
A boxer is running through the city. He heads down a street with tall buildings on either side, darts between parked cars, runs diagonally across a junction, down a bike path, crosses a bridge and follows the curve of the tram tracks. Anyone passing would think he was in training. But he’s running faster than usual. His breathing is out of control. His eyes are wide.
His boxing boots fly silently over the pavement. Fragments of sentences echo around his head, accompanied by the ringing of a bell. Disconnected words thud against his eardrums, buzzing sounds, distorted, far away. Then suddenly they become clear.
He lands a punch.
He lands another punch. Again he hears a bell, sharper and louder than before. Stop, someone screams. He feels a hand on his shoulder, fends it off with a jab of his elbow. He throws a left hook, hits the man square in the face and turns back to his opponent.
Stop that! he hears again. He lands another punch, and another, and another.
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.
The boxer slows, panting, and looks at the statue. He sits down on a bench. The bushes and trees stand motionless between him and the street with the tramlines. Dark grey clouds slide past behind the trees. There are no birds, not even pigeons.
He feels fine drops of rain on his face. The leaves on the trees move gently in the breeze. A man in a denim jacket is standing on the other side of the park, beneath the awning of the cigar shop on the corner. He’s looking in the boxer’s direction. Another man comes out of the shop, lights a cigarette, and says something to the man in the denim jacket, who replies without taking his eyes off the boxer. The smoke dissolves in the air. The boxer looks down at his legs and at the wood of the bench, as it slowly darkens in the rain.
He hears footsteps. For a moment, he seems resigned to his fate. He waits for a deep voice to say something, to speak his name, to pin him to the bench. When it comes, the tone isn’t what he expected: Hey, you’re Danny Clare, aren’t you?
The man walks over and stands in front of him, turns up the collar of his denim jacket. The other man stops behind his friend, off to one side. With no expression on his face, the boxer looks at the two men.
You are him though, aren’t you? The boxer?
Danny gets up.
We saw you, says the man in the denim jacket. He tugs at his collar again, trying to shield his neck from the rain.
Against that big blond guy, it was. The Hungarian.
The other man corrects him: Bulgarian.
Danny doesn’t react. He just clasps his hands.
Good fight, that was.
The cigarette falls to the wet gravel and the man crushes it with his foot. The two men smile at the boxer. The man in the denim jacket says something else, but his voice fades away and Danny looks down at the cigarette butt, which is still smouldering, and then at his feet. Now he can hear words from his conversation with Pavel, at the boxing school. And there’s that click in his head again, when it all fell into place, and the click that came afterwards when everything around him imploded and went black.
I don’t know what you’re talking about, he says. He runs to the park exit, leaving the men and the statue behind. He goes through the gate, crosses the tramlines and races along the brick wall and around the corner. Finally, he reaches a busy dual carriageway, with an endless stream of cars flowing out of the city. That’s the road he wants. The rain sweeps against his face. He runs past a supermarket and sees a black kid pushing a line of shopping trolleys inside. He passes beneath a viaduct with drops of rainwater clinging to its solid metal girders. Reflections of the posters on the walls ripple dimly in the puddles. He stops in the shelter of a tree by a big roundabout. On his right, a railway line hangs high above the street. He sees the station just beyond the roundabout. A long train is pulling in, its wheels screeching. The boxer puts his hands in his pockets. His keys, his loose change, his mobile – it’s all still in the changing room at the boxing school.
The traffic spins around the roundabout and fans out along the roads leading to and from the city. He takes the road to the motorway. He crosses over, walks through the long grass in the centre of the roundabout, waits for a gap in the traffic, crosses again, stands by the roadside and raises his thumb. A car soon stops for him. There’s an old man at the wheel. I can take you a few kilometres down the motorway, he says.
The boxer nods and gets in.
I’ll drop you off at the petrol station. You’ll be able to get another ride from there, no problem.
The man accelerates gently, navigates a few bends and heads onto the motorway. Opera plays on the radio. The voice pierces through the noise of the engine. When Danny looks at the radio, the man turns the knob and the music becomes louder. The voice grates on his nerves. They sit in silence for a few minutes. Then the man takes the exit for the petrol station. When they reach the pumps, Danny thanks him and steps out of the car into the smell of petrol.
You’re welcome, says the man.
Danny slams the car door.
For Reading Groups
Our reading guide to Tomorrow Pamplona, designed to exercise your brain:
1 Tomorrow Pamplona contrasts the choice between fight or flight. A boxer must stand and fight, facing his opponent in the eye, whereas a bull-runner must run from his pursuer. In the opening scenes, we know something is wrong because the boxer is running away. Discuss the choices of the two protagonists in the story, and what informs these decisions.
2 What are the two men running from?
3 Discuss the variety of male relationships portrayed in Tomorrow Pamplona, such as father, husband, coach, lover, son. What is the relationship between Danny and Robert. How and why does it change?
4 How does routine impact upon the two men? Consider Robert’s annual trips, Danny’s training and the French woman who swims every night. How are routines disturbed in Tomorrow Pamplona, and to what effect?
5 What is the impact of Robert’s accident? Discuss this in relation to Robert, Danny and other characters in the book.
6 Jan Van Mersbergen is renowned for his silent characters. Danny is a man of few words. What do you learn about him, even when he is not speaking?
7 The writing in Tomorrow Pamplona is tight and concise, yet maintains a fluidity that reflects the movement of the car, of a boxing match and of running. How has the author managed this and how does it add to the story?
8 How do the changing and varied landscapes of the story underscore the narrative?
9 What is the role of fear in Tomorrow Pamplona? Discuss how the men’s fears change throughout the story, and what the result is of this.
10 How effectively does the author depict the passing of time in Tomorrow Pamplona? Are there chapters in which time moves at different speeds?
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