In the exact middle of Penguin’s impressive first collection of Dutch short stories is Cees Nooteboom’s ‘Paula’. Indulging in unashamed nostalgia, the narrator recalls the glamorous woman whose presence held together a motely group of his card-playing friends.
These characters, their backgrounds and their concerns seem to reflect, if not exactly, then in spirit, the wide range of themes and threads running through this entire anthology: friendship; love; ‘renounced nobility’; the ‘real war’ – which was ‘still quite recent’; the polder – the Netherlands’ reclaimed land – on which ‘one can project any image one likes’; the dead, who ‘contrive’ to make you remember them.
So, do these subjects and preoccupations, dealt with across the thirty-six stories, reflect, in turn, those of the Netherlands – the country of today, and of the last century?
A South African friend of mine, who spent fifteen years living in Amsterdam, once offered me a subtle insight into the thinking of the Dutch – if there is such a thing. When I remarked that the handsome houses in such districts as the Jordaan had no blinds or curtains in their windows, despite giving directly onto the pavement, he told me – pointedly – that you’re not supposed to look in. Privacy relies on the manners of the passerby. Perhaps, then, if a social history of the Netherlands offers a view of the public lives of the Dutch, a collection of fiction, such as this, invites the reader to glance through those windows and gaze on the private activities of the houses’ inhabitants.
This dynamic is very clearly displayed in the way many stories in the anthology deal with the Dutch encounter with south-east Asia. In ‘The Southern Continent’ (published in Dutch in 1991) P.F Thomése reimagines the lives of the explorer Jacob Roggeveen (the first European to land on Easter Island) and his family, for whom ‘voyages of discovery [were] the crowning glory of creation’. Whereas Jacob sets out to discover the real Terra Australis, it is the imaginings of his invalid brother, Jan, which are most revealing. From his sickbed Jan builds a picture of the Southern Continent based on questionable scientific assumptions, optimism and a peculiarly European impulse to classify and exploit. The result is a book of which he is ‘extremely proud’ and which his father pays to have printed. Thomése details, damningly, that ‘the edition had a run of three copies, one for each member of the Roggeveen family’. For me the famous public achievements of the Dutch East India Company are brought low by this tiny, private insight. A peek through the window reveals the reality of the colonial adventure.
Harry Mulisch’s 1995 story, ‘What Happened to Sergeant Massuro?’ demonstrates a similar concern, but in a much more immediate and shocking way. It describes how the eponymous sergeant, on patrol in the jungle of New Guinea, develops a surreal disease, which seems to involve him gradually turning to stone. The first symptoms appear as the troop play a game – significantly called ‘land grab’ – just after one of their number abuses a girl from a local tribe. In the chaos that builds around the evermore solid and inflexible Massuro, a fellow soldier attacks him, and in that moment, the narrator has ‘a fantastic vision’ of European history; of popes, kings and cathedrals.
The doctor tasked with the post-mortem of Massuro’s stone body suggests the cause of the disease is ‘atrocities’, or rather ‘remorse’ for atrocities. ‘Science knows nothing about the area where mind and body communicate, nothing!’ he insists. For me, the implication is that fiction does know about such intimate, private exchanges.
Published in 1952, just after the Dutch relinquished power in south-east Asia, A. Alberts’ ‘Green’ takes us even closer to the colonial period, to the ‘heart of darkness’ (this story reeks of Conrad’s novel), and to an even more intimate and personal place. An agent is tasked with monitoring a patch of forest, his predecessor having ‘[drunk] himself to death’. Quickly obsessed with finding the edge of the seemingly never-ending vegetation, the narrator is suffocated by the ‘green’, is made uneasy by his relationship with ‘Peartree’ – the only other European in the vicinity – and is dismayed by the local people, who are clearly thwarting his efforts to gain some kind of European-style control of the wilderness. All of this is obliquely described, however. Given greater importance are the act of walking, the light hung outside the agent’s hut, his pointless procrastination about meeting with Peartree – all everyday, personal details that speak volumes about Europeans’ experience of the places and people the colonial undertaking forces them to face.
The Dutch engagement with the landscape of the Netherlands – much of it manmade – offers another angle on this tension between surface description and interiority. This is most marked in Maarten ’T Hart’s story, ‘Castle Muider’. A writer is engaged to interview an elderly muskrat catcher about his work. An alien species, the muskrat’s tunnels can cause severe damage to the delicate environment of the polder. But there is no obvious symbolism here. The writer resists any attempt to make out of the rat catcher’s tales ‘ideas … syntheses … summaries’. He is intent instead on pure observation, on ‘a unique, always one-off receptivity to one-off sensory impressions’. Yet, this story is a fiction – an insight into the psychic, not just a record of the evidence of the senses. The story ends as the old rat catcher allows a similarly aged muskrat to go free, happy that ‘the world can’t be such a bad place … if that fellow is still able to find a place to rest his head for the night’. Twenty pages of beautifully rendered nature writing, and we arrive where almost all these stories place us – outside the window, peering in.
Nowhere is this invited intimacy more evident than in what, for me, is far and away the stand-out story of this entire anthology: Helga Ruebsamen’s ‘Olive’. Olive is a charming, sensational courtesan, who takes the narrator under her wing, mischievously naming her ‘Oliver’ – a reference to both her boyish appearance, and her subordinate role. For years they live a life of debauchery – sometimes homeless, always drunk; always carefree. Until, suddenly, Olive becomes sick, and the romantic veneer of their existence falls away. Olive’s ‘proud face was the pointy, shrunken skull of a witch’; her hands ‘looked like the yellow horny claws of a dead wild duck’. For a fleeting instant, Oliver says, ‘I was able to take off my blinkers and see ourselves and everything more clearly’. Yet more is to come. The story ends with an abrupt, brutal blow that turns Olive’s and Oliver’s decades-long romantic existence into a horrid case of manipulation and emotional abuse.
What makes ‘Olive’ so visceral is Oliver’s open, honest narration; she spares neither the reader nor herself. This makes Ruebsamen’s story more shocking, even, than the obvious candidates for that label in the collection: Manon Uphoff’s ‘Poop’ for example, in which two chance acquaintances eat dog faeces. Or Jan Wolkers’ ‘Feathered Friends’, in which a man murders his wife and feeds her dismembered body to the seagulls on his roof. More than these, ‘Olive’ pulls aside the veil, offering the reader the real rawness of human experience – something all the stories in this anthology do, to varying degrees.
If, therefore, this collection indicates anything essentially Dutch, then perhaps it is what Joost Zwagerman describes in his introduction: ‘Dutch writers frequently explore the vague borderland between delusion and reality.’ But, whereas Zwagermann says these writers often sketch ‘the disturbing process of delusion eating away at those borders and ultimately conquering the entire territory’, for me, the delusion – those grand facades you see when wandering the canals of the Jordaan district – falls away when you are granted permission to observe the reality of authentic, Dutch lives.
Reviewed by West Camel
The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories
Edited by Joost Zwagerman
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. www.westcamel.net
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