Is Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen a literary thriller?

April 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

This post may give away too much of the plot.

A professional boxer and a family man meet by chance on a journey to the Pamplona Bull Run. The boxer is fleeing an unhappy love. The father hopes to escape his dull routine. Both know that, eventually, they will have to return to the place each calls “home”. From the blurb of Tomorrow Pamplona published by Peirene

This blurb misled me. The boxer, Danny, is not going anywhere but running away. Danny hitches a lift from Robert who is on the way to the Bull Run. Neither could it be said that Danny is fleeing an unhappy love. He is more immediately fleeing something else.

The Bull Run is an intense annual experience for Robert. His life is dull but I don’t feel that he wants to escape it. The Bull Run recharges him and he can re-enter the fray (ordinary) life once more.

In reading some other description or review of this book, I had the impression that some special bond is formed between the men. But the relationship between Robert and Danny does not develop much. Danny keeps his story, no wonder, to himself. But we, as readers, learn about him through flashbacks. Ultimately, Robert renders a great service to Danny: it is the least Danny can do then to drive him home from Spain. (The episode where Danny meets the old lady is a sentimental interlude that I do not think belongs in the book.)

Tomorrow Pamplona was unsatisfactory on its own and then suffered more by a contrast with Beside the Sea. I had sampled the opening section of both books but read Tomorrow Pamplona first and followed it with Beside the Sea.

I finished both books with the word ‘Hmm.’ For Beside the Sea it meant: this book gives me something to think about; for Tomorrow Pamplona: this book does not make sense.

I am well aware that as a reader I can be casual and superficial. In this way, there will be much that escapes me. However, even if I do fail to glean all allusions and metaphors, the obvious story must work.

My understanding of the boxing world is limited. I believe that Varon is a boxing promoter who arranges a significant fight for Danny with another boxer (I don’t think he was named). Varon supplies a sparring partner, Pavel, for Danny. An Asian woman called Ragna works for Varon.

Ragna’s relationship with Danny starts uninterestingly and unpromisingly with a sexual encounter in a boxer’s changing room. Perhaps you, readers, are forever walking in on people engaged in sexual activity in places where you least expect to find them. It has not been my experience of life.

Do we meet Ragna, get to know her, does she assume some individuality in our minds?

What is there to distinguish this relationship from hundreds of others in books? Do Ragna and Danny say one memorable thing to each other? Ragna satisfies Danny sexually, and the sight of her smoking in bed fascinates him, but does not fascinate the reader. Jan van Mersbergen appears to be endowing actions, smoking, with a significance they don’t have. Good characterisation is something more than these tableau vivants.

When I compare their relationship with the mother’s relationship with her sons in Beside the Sea I feel the world of difference: there never was such a mother who had such a relationship with her sons. It is unique, as relationships often are. I have not read of a similar relationship between a mother and children. But the novel world seems to team with relationships like Ragna’s and Danny’s. And, of course, no literary novel is complete now without that four letter word to describe sex. Another cliché. Perhaps I move in genteel circles where people make little reference to sex and, when they do, they don’t use the four-letter word to describe it.

The mundaneness of life (which in a bleak, and effective, way obtrudes in Beside the Sea) does not obtrude in Tomorrow Pamplona. Does anyone scrub a bath, or go out to the shop to buy a loaf of bread?

Although Danny is suspicions of  Ragna’s relationship with her wheelchair-bound boss, Varon, she reassures him that Varon’s below-the-waist paralysis precludes a sexual relationship.

Ragna goes to Thailand before Danny’s very important fight. Danny has arranged to see her off at the airport. When Danny arrives at the airport, he discovers Ragna has gone on an earlier flight. Varon, amongst others, is at the airport. He knew of the earlier flight: Odd and suspicious though this is, Danny is easily fobbed off with some less than acceptable explanation.

During her absence Ragna does not communicate with Danny. We are to understand that telephoning may be too difficult.

Danny trains hard for the fight. Shortly before the fight, Danny learns from Pavel that Ragna is back, she and Varon are in a nearby café, and she has some unexpected news.

Pavel describes Ragna as Varon’s Asian girlfriend. Would it not have been natural during their boxing bouts for Pavel to have mentioned this before or for Danny to have mentioned that Ragna was his girlfriend?

Danny rushes off to seek corroboration of what Pavel innocently tells him. It is quite extraordinary after all Ragna’s and Varon’s machinations (and I am not sure what the extent of them were) that they undo all their work by broadcasting information before the fight that was in their best interests to keep quiet about: at least, until the fight was over and they had departed for another country.

Varon, a boxing promoter, must have seen that a boxer should not be upset coming into a big fight. I assume also that Varon stood to lose financially, if Danny did not win the fight. But he appears, for what reason?, to be ready to risk everything.

Both Beside the Sea and Tomorrow Pamplona end with a similar act but I did not feel alienated in the first whereas in Tomorrow Pamplona what little sympathy I had for Danny was snuffed out.

Tomorrow Pamplona is one of those books that is too much of a mixture of things to succeed quite in being anything. There was potential for a reasonable story, never one as marked and as individual as Beside the Sea’s. Readers of thrillers would be disappointed in the plot and readers of literary novels, in the unconvincing characters.

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