“Tomorrow Pamplona” by Jan van Mersbergen

Tomorrow PamplonaA road trip taken by two men across Europe to the bull-running at Pamplona. The set-up appealed to me: it’s quite similar to my own novel, with two men on a road trip, exploring the strange relationship between them and the mutual search for something more than what they have.

The characters are quite different from mine, though. They start as strangers: Robert picks up Danny outside a service station and offers him a lift. Despite Robert’s best attempts to get inside Danny’s head, they really remain strangers right to the end of the novel. Danny is monosyllabic and secretive, a professional boxer fleeing some initially unspecified trouble and a messed-up relationship. Beyond that he refuses to say any more, and when Robert tries to press him, he threatens to pull up the handbrake as they’re speeding down the motorway.

There is real tension in the car, and I was drawn immediately into the story, wondering what Danny’s secrets were. Not much is revealed about Robert beyond the fact that he’s a hard-working family man who goes to Pamplona every year to feel alive. Nevertheless I did feel a sympathy for him – he is clearly trying to help Danny, and perhaps needs something from him too, something which Danny refuses to give.

Through flashbacks  we gradually learn more about Danny’s story and his troubled relationship with Ragna, and yet still a lot is withheld. The author never allows us inside the characters’ heads, so we have to rely on their actions and speech, and in Danny’s case this doesn’t give us much to go on. I find it works very well mostly because it keeps things mysterious and leaves a lot of blanks for us to fill in. Where it didn’t work so well for me is in the scenes with Ragna, because with so few words and zero emotional expression, you don’t really get to see the foundation for the relationship between them. It’s just a few mumbled words, and then suddenly she’s got his cock in her hand. Even after that, the main development in their relationship is that they have sex in various different positions. The emotional repression is all true to the character, but still it makes it hard to understand why he feels so strongly about Ragna, which his actions make clear that he really does. It also makes the sex feel a little bit nasty.

There’s a wonderful dreaminess about the passages in Pamplona itself. It’s an experience which is supposed to be visceral and to make them feel alive, and yet Danny seems more detached than ever. It’s as if he’s a spectator to events that are happening to someone else. Even as the bulls are charging, nothing seems real. Afterwards neither he nor Robert can remember much about the whole thing, other than vague impressions of colour.

Tomorrow Pamplona is a novel that manages to convey a lot despite its relatively short length, its spare writing style and the elusiveness of its main character. As Danny is mumbling a one-word evasion or playing with the door of a toy car, we have space as readers to fill in the blanks. As more of the back-story gets filled in through flashbacks, we get more information to help us hone our guesswork, and by the end we arrive at something like an understanding of Danny’s character, as far as such a thing is possible. It’s a satisfying structure, and results in an intriguing novel that reveals its secrets gradually and builds suspense as the car rolls towards Pamplona.

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4 thoughts on ““Tomorrow Pamplona” by Jan van Mersbergen

  1. I guessed it was love at first sight and that’s what made the relationship work for Danny, and of course you can have a romantic relationship with lots of sex, but something did seem amiss.

    You’ve got me thinking about Danny’s actions in a different way than I have previously. Was the car symbolic of their journey in the present, or was it more the opening and closing of the doors?…

  2. I loved the sparse economy of the writing, the way Robert attempts to draw out taciturn monosyllabic Danny to no avail. How Danny’s life appears as though he’s watching it on a screen & yet just below the surface that Rage . With Ragna I think it was not a relationship more a necessity. Great Post

  3. Hi Charlie, yes, I found the part where he was playing with the toy car mesmerising. Definitely many ways to read it, either as mirroring the journey or the decision whether or not to open up, etc. Whichever way you read it, the moment when he snaps the door off conveys a lot of meaning!

    Hi Parrish, glad you liked the post. The rage is palpable, isn’t it, even though he doesn’t say or do much at all! I like the way you put it, “as though he’s watching on screen”. He does seem very detached, particularly in Pamplona when the bulls are running. Maybe he’s so obsessed with Ragna that he’s more alive in his memories than in the present?

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