In my little corner of the blogosphere (and twitterverse), there has been a lot of talk of, and love for, Peirene Press, a small, London-based indie publisher that promotes translated European fiction. Last year, Peirene published their first three offerings, bringing short novellas to the attention of anglophone readers who may be interested in (according to a critical blurb from the TLS) “literary cinema for those fatigued by film.”
I’m not sure how accurate that claim is for Peirene’s other publications, but it’s a very good description for their fifth offering, Dutch writer Jan Van Mersbergen’s Tomorrow Pamplona (translated by Laura Watkinson). In just under 190 pages, the writer takes his characters (and the reader) on a road trip which could come straight from a European film noir. Interested? Buckle up, and I’ll take you for a little ride…
Tomorrow Pamplona starts in the Netherlands, where Danny, a boxer, is running through the streets: from what, we don’t know; to where, he doesn’t seem to know himself. After standing in the rain, waiting for someone to take pity on him and give him a lift to wherever it is that he’s heading, he is picked up by Robert, a family man on his usual annual getaway to Pamplona, where he will participate in the world-famous running of the bulls. And so begins a rather unexpected road trip…
As the story unfolds, we are treated to two separate strands. The first, told in a present tense which heightens tension and brings us closer to the action, relates the eventful journey Danny and Robert make to Pamplona. The second, told in the past tense, gradually fills in the few months leading up to the day the two men meet. Both parts begin very quickly, events following one another rapidly, before slowing down gradually as the protagonists approach Spain. Towards the end, the pace speeds up again, dragging the reader towards the inevitable (and shattering) climax. It’s a hell of a ride.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot – in such a short novel(la), it’s best to leave things between the reader and the author -, but it’s fairly obvious from the start that Danny, a man of very few words, is a slightly ambiguous character. There is a sense of barely restrained rage lurking beneath the taciturn exterior, and part of the fun is trying to figure out just what it is that has got under his skin.
However, Robert gives the reader just as much to think about. For all his talk about needing to get away for a while to recharge (and I can think of better places to rediscover yourself than at the pointy end of a bull…), there is obviously something not quite right in his life too, a frustration that can only be (temporarily) eased by staring danger, and death, in the face. Just how happy is he with his life, and to what extent is he prepared to go to feel alive?
Tomorrow Pamplona packs a lot into its slender bulk, but, at times, Danny is not the only one who is sparing with words. Although the middle sections are a little more descriptive, Van Mersbergen begins the story with extremely sparse prose, much closer on the Hemingway-Proust spectrum to the American writer than the French. Of course, this may well be intentional; the subject matter is reminiscent of old Ernest, and there’s even a slight nod in the direction of The Sun Also Rises in a café scene on the Spanish border. As mentioned above (and I may well be alone here), I felt a sense of lengthening of time though towards the middle of the book as the hour of the running of the bulls approached. Events appeared to slow down, until time suddenly… stopped. And then began to speed up again.
The key to the book is the secret of Danny’s flight (and silence), but that’s something you’ll have to find out for yourself – and I highly recommend that you do. Tomorrow Pamplona is out in June, hopefully available at The Book Depository and Amazon, and it is well worth reading. There’s one thing I got from this book that I can tell you though: you can’t run from fate, but you can (and should) run from bulls…
Before I go, I just thought I’d bookend the review with a few thoughts on Peirene (who were lovely enough to send me this review copy). It’s no wonder that so many people are talking about them, because they are filling an awkward gap in the market, and, at the same time, fulfilling an important literary role. The idea of providing a literary equivalent to a two-hour European film is an excellent one (and I could see Danny and Robert as they wound their way down towards the Iberian peninsula), one that has obviously caught on. The identity that Meike, Maddy and co. (even if the co. consists of an imaginary friend and a couple of interns!) have created, especially in the look and style of their books is instantly recognisable and fitting for the works they are presenting.
I wonder what the future holds for Peirene. Will they continue to bring out their three books a year, going for quality over quantity? Will they stay with the concept of short, one-sitting stories? Tomorrow Pamplona is noticeably longer than the class of 2010, so is that indicative of a shift in focus? Will they continue to uncover new (for English-speaking audiences) European writers, or will they build on their successes by going back to the well of their previously published authors?
I certainly don’t know (and I doubt Meike has all those answers either), but one thing is certain: Peirene should be congratulated for their efforts in making good European fiction available to a wider audience. And that’s what I’m doing – well done 🙂