An intensive look at ourselves, humans, that can’t really be summed up.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 2007 in Dutch; 6th June 2011 in English
Date Reviewed: 1st June 2011
Original language: Dutch
Original title: Morgen zijn we in Pamplona (Tomorrow we are in Pamplona)
Translated by: Laura Watkinson
Danny is a boxer, and right now he’s running away from his life. Something seems to have happened in the boxing ring (the reader doesn’t know) that’s made him rethink things. He’s also had trouble with the woman he loves. Robert lets him hitchhike in his car to Pamplona, where Robert is going to run from the bulls in order to get away from his routine life, something he does once a year. It may seem a simple decision, but nothing is simple to Danny anymore.
Every now and then a book comes into my life where I know that there is a deeper meaning in the words but I have trouble finding it. Tomorrow Pamplona is one of them. This isn’t to say it is too highbrow to be fully enjoyed, rather that the way Van Mersbergen has told his tale requires the reader’s undivided attention. Of course you’ll be wondering if I worked it out by the end, and the answer is yes, at least sort of.
But although this not knowing is frustrating it gives the book a real staying power. I find myself wanting to pass my copy around for others to read, not just because it would make an interesting discussion but because I think part of the way to gain a truer understanding is to talk about it with at least a few people. One thing that this reviewer will definitely be musing over for some time is just who Robert is or what he is supposed to signify. I got the feeling that although he’s incredibly regular there is something else about him.
If Paulo Coelho provides food for thought then Van Mersbergen provides the ingredients – but you’ll have to roast the chicken yourself. And you get less of a finished story than a lot of books that leave you with multiple options for what happens next – yet at the same time you instinctively know what will happen.
This book is spiritual, borders on angst, and may even be psychological. One of the themes is inevitably coping with loss, Danny’s development focuses on it, and we see this right at the beginning where he copes by leaving home, and later when a minor character copes by staying where the loss occurred.
And characters are everything in this book. Robert may seem to take a metaphorical backseat (and again I wonder about who he is, is his position as car driver relevant in a spiritual sense to Danny) but he is as important as Danny, albeit that the book revolves around the latter. The stage is Pamplona but it’s more about how the place reflects the mind at the time and what is needed by that person.
They drive past fields that are crisscrossed by straight drainage ditches. […] He rolls the car across his palm.
There is a beautiful simplicity in the way the novel is written. Told in both present tense and flashbacks, it seems abstract, disjointed even, but in fact it is meticulously detailed – Van Mersbergen has thought deeply about human actions and the world around us, and used words that read like a soothing lullaby.
The style isn’t particularly poetic and yet the way it makes you feel is as though you’re reading a poem. The writing is comparable to Markus Zusak’s, and if you’ve read my review of The Book Thief you should be able to get a sense of the way I feel about Van Mersbergen’s text, albeit that Tomorrow Pamplona is a translation (by Laura Watkinson). I should probably add that there are a few sex scenes in the book. They are there to help illustrate what is going on in the character’s mind.
Never before have I felt I’ve given a book such an unsatisfactory write up, but I know that I could do no more without revealing it’s entire contents. Truly the only way you are going to find out if this book is worth your time is to read it, because it’s really not the sort of thing you can decide upon without having the words in your own hands.
Tomorrow Pamplona was originally written in Dutch, and was translated into English by Laura Watkinson.
I received this book for review from Peirene Press.
June 6, 2011, 4:28 pm
I don’t think your write-up was unsatisfactory at all! I shared your feeling about Robert – he’s presented as the regular hard-working family man, and yet you wonder why then does he pick up strangers in the rain and go to Pamplona every year to run in front of bulls? I was also intrigued by the man who appears in front of them in the streets in Pamplona, and reappears several times – he felt deeply symbolic, but I wasn’t sure quite of what…
Charlie: Hi Andrew, I forgot about that man! Yes, there definitely seemed to be something about him, couldn’t work it out though. Something I didn’t write about (might edit my review later for it) was the way that Robert suggests himself as not always “proper”, I think he says naughty, but he is obviously very caring, it’s a sort of contradiction that suggests a possible lack of faith in himself. I could go on for a while about Robert, I think this book might require a re-read in a short while!
June 6, 2011, 7:44 pm
Yes, why does Robert feel the need to constantly risk his life which also jeopardises his families existence, He had as many hidden issues as did Danny. Enjoyed your review thanks.
Charlie: Hi Parrish, yes, he certainly does!
June 6, 2011, 7:48 pm
Great review, glad to see you enjoyed the book so much. I agree, it was definitely one where you had to read closely and pay attention!
Charlie: Hi Amy, in the beginning it seemed quite straightforward, as Meike’s introduction to it says, such a red herring!
June 10, 2011, 11:02 pm
I liked your review and now I’m intrigued. Books that are described as needing the reader’s definitely attention can come across as intimidating but this sounds like one I wouldn’t mind picking up actually.
Charlie: Sometimes books that need total focus get kept on the TBR pile for ages, I think it’s the page number of this novel that works in its favour in that regard. I’d definitely recommend it if you like books that aren’t clear-cut.