Book review - Tomorrow Pamplona, By Jan van Mersbergen

Short fiction can still pack a punch, as demonstrated by the latest offering from Peirene Press, which specialises in publishing European short novels in translation. Its theme for 2011 is the "year of the man", and there is a focus on stories with male protagonists. You can't get two more macho subjects than boxing and bull running, and both are at the heart of Jan van Mersbergen's homage to Ernest Hemingway.

En route to Pamplona's bull run, Robert picks up fellow Dutchman Danny, a young boxer fleeing a betrayal and an act of violence. Robert gently probes his travelling companion, but Danny barely speaks. Instead, he mulls over the recent events that have led to his flight: the months of training for the legendary boxing promoter Gerard Varon, his passionate affair with Varon's glamorous assistant, Ragna, and the moment when he brutally severed himself from them.

Robert is a family man who works in insurance, but once a year he can forget both by participating in the thrill of the run. As he tells Danny, some treat the annual fiesta as a pilgrimage, an opportunity to wash away their sins, but for Robert, bull running is everything his life is not: "It's a celebration. It's danger. It's real life." When Robert describes the emotional release ("You run because you'll die if you don't ... that'll clear your mind in an instant."), Danny decides to accompany him. Because clarity is just what he needs.

It is tempting to pin the label of "road novella" on to Tomorrow Pamplona, since so much of it takes place on the long highways between Amsterdam and Pamplona. But the essential drama of the story lies in the boxing school where Danny trains, and during the adrenaline high of the bull run.

Tomorrow Pamplona deliberately echoes Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Van Mersbergen explores similar themes of alienation, and his spare prose succinctly expresses the angst of his two male protagonists – caused for Robert by the banality of his life, and for Danny by a lost love. Both men are wounded – either physically or emotionally. Once in Pamplona, you know that their stories will become irretrievably entwined, when a stranger remarks that Danny has the same look in his eye as the bulls.

As he tracks back and forth between the dual narratives, moving inexorably to the double climax, van Mersbergen skilfully builds emotional intensity until the point when the boxer and bulls' fury are finally unleashed.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday, 12 June 2011