Tuesday 14 June 2011

'It's not about guts'

Tomorrow Pamplona
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.


kimbofo 14 June 2011 at 11:06  

Great review, Will. Not read this one myself, but it sounds intriguing.

Anonymous,  14 June 2011 at 19:09  

I felt the book was more about the men as flawed characters ,danny failed in love and robert maybe bored in life ,great review will ,all the best stu

Max Cairnduff 14 June 2011 at 21:00  

Very nice Will.

Have you read any Hemingway? It sounds very influenced by him. Both in subject matter and to a degree in style.

William Rycroft 14 June 2011 at 22:09  

Thank you all for the comments. It was a nice little read this one; actually nice probably isn't the right word given how unsympathetic the protagonists are, but it was an effective look at a couple of flawed (as you say Stu) men.

I haven't really read any Hemingway, Max, which is what prevented me from mentioning him in the review although I've since seen the comparison made elsewhere. I've thought often of reading The Old Man and The Sea. Is that a good place to start?

leyla 15 June 2011 at 07:55  

Lovely review, Will. It sounds an interesting book and the way you describe the exchanges between Danny and Robert make it sound as if the author has really succeeded in capturing the tentative development of male/male friendship - so different from the more rapid/gushing closeness between women.
I wonder if as well as the metaphor of the boxing ring being like the bull charge, the author also intended readers to draw a parallel between the bulls' fervour and ensuing death with the way some men hurl themselves passionately into other aspects of life and love without considering the long-term sequelae.
Great review as ever, thanks.

Max Cairnduff 15 June 2011 at 13:03  

I wasn't actually a huge fan of Old Man, but it is very short.

I started on A Farewell to Arms which I thought was excellent. I've also read The Sun Also Rises which takes place in part in Pamplona at the bull run. That was good too.

Those three are all the ones I've read so far of Hemingway. Old Man is the easiest, but I found Sun (also known I think as Fiesta) and Farewell better books.

William Rycroft 15 June 2011 at 18:37  

Max - brilliant, thank you.

Leyla - there is definitely something hot-headed about Danny. I avoided going into any more detail about that in the review to avoid spoilers but your perception is spot on. I presume by 'sequelae' you meant 'consequences'!

Simon (Savidge Reads) 18 June 2011 at 20:49  

This is the one Peirene book that I haven't read yet and for some reason currently I am not so drawn to it. I dont know if its the idea of the bull fighting or what but something isnt tickling my tastebuds with it. Though your review has made it sound rather good, so maybe I should... erm, take the bull by the horns lol.

Anonymous,  20 June 2011 at 16:57  

Great review. I found it a very masculine book, and having read 'The Sun also rises' was bound to compare it to Hemingway. I've now read three of his, and really enjoyed them - I like his style of writing, although TSAR does get a bit repetitive with all the drinking, drinking and drinking.

William Rycroft 20 June 2011 at 22:45  

Hi Simon. This wasn't my favourite Peirene title but a good read nonetheless and I'd be intrigued to know your thoughts if you did read it. As Annabel says it is a very masculine book and the more I think about how unsympathetic the male characters are the more amazed I am that I did in fact invest something in them.

Annabel - isn't there even some mixing of drinks to vary things a little?!

Thanks for the comments everyone.

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