by Jan van Mersbergen
Peirene Press published three novellas in their first year, all featuring female protagonists, the best of which, Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, made its way on to my books of the year list last year. 2011 however is the year of the male and after the first of these titles, Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki, comes Peirene No.5 from Dutch author van Mersbergen who uses his two male characters to explore themes of masculinity, confrontation and escape - fight or flight, if you will. We are thrown into the action immediately in a disorientating opening which sees boxer Danny running through the streets, not in training but on the run from something.
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.
As rain begins to fall he continues his aimless flight until he finds himself with thumb raised near a motorway and picked up by a man who offers to take him a few kilometres to the nearest petrol station where he can get another ride. But with no clear destination in mind and completely unprepared for his journey Danny ends up staying in the car of Robert, a family man who has often picked up hitchers and the stories they tell - 'I'm just interested. To hear what they have to say.' Danny is taciturn to the extreme in their opening exchanges, like a defensive boxer in the early rounds, but we along with Robert can raise a smile at the pretence of saying 'Who says I'm going to tell you anything?' After all, it wouldn't be much of a book if that was the case. Robert it turns out is making his annual pilgrimage to Pamplona and the running of the bulls.
It's more than an escape, Robert replies. And it's not just about the kick. You've got to have your own reason for running with the bulls...I work all year for my family, but half the time I don't know why I'm doing it. You get what I'm saying? Let's just say I'm not the easiest of people. Bit of a naughty boy sometimes, if you know what I mean. And, somehow, Pamplona helps. When you're standing there and those bulls are coming for you, you forget everything else.
That's about as much as we're going to learn about Robert who remains a sketchily drawn character. The focus is always on Danny and as the two men make their way down through Europe from The Netherlands to that famous city in the north of Spain we follow two narrative courses; their conversation within the car and Danny's remembrance of what came before that flight in the opening pages. The two short extracts so far will give a you taste already of the short, spare sentences employed by van Mersbergen. Without wanting to stretch the boxing analogies too far there is something blunt and punchy about the prose that mirrors the guarded exchanges of male conversation. Unfortunately there is also something of a fist in the face about some of the images and metaphors employed along the way. When they pass a lorry on its side and spot its cargo of chickens failing to take the opportunity of escape that would be enough without the ensuing conversation to spell it all out.
Those chickens. They just stayed where they were. He pauses. They could have flown away but they didn't.
Chickens can't fly.
Well, they could have walked away, says Robert. Anyway, they must be able to flap about a bit. Whatever, it just goes to show they're already half-dead. Not like the bulls in Pamplona - they're a completely different story.
There are a couple of moments like this that can make a slim book feel heavy-handed but they come early on and are particularly surprising given the lightness with which van Mersbergen moves around his narrative. Danny's preparations for a series of fights with a new promoter, Varon, and his work with a new trainer combine with his erotic encounters with a woman who works with Varon and who remains enigmatic to him in spite of their intimacy. Three sex scenes in less than 200 pages isn't just a good return on your investment, these scenes also provide a counterpoint to the very different physicality of Danny's training. We generally feel confident in his abilities as a fighter, his entourage feel relaxed about his chances of success, but even at the same time as he imposes himself physically with his lover, Ragna, we can sense the weakness that comes from handing himself over to her in this way, especially when combined with our sense of unease about the solidity of their relationship.
As Danny gets ever closer to Pamplona and his first confrontation with those bulls, Ragna almost haunts him, and when he comes to actually stand in the streets we realise that he isn't just confronting the very real physical threat of the impending charge but also himself and his actions.
He thinks about the fight and about her. He knows running isn't an option because the referee's four fingers are held high and his voice is counting, strong and clear. Danny stands his ground. A boxer does not run away, a boxer listens to the count, whether he's the boxer who's been hit and is trying to get to his feet or the boxer who dealt the last blow and is looking down at the opponent lying before him. Both boxers listen to the count.
What happens to Danny and Robert in Pamplona will force them both (even Robert who has managed to treat his annual reckoning with the bulls as a kind of atonement for his hinted-at philandering) to confront their existence. They may have covered hundreds of miles on the road down to Spain but the bulk of their personal journey occurs in the few hundred feet of cobbled streets they share with each other, with the bulls, and with their conscience.