Monday, 6 December 2010

Dipping My Toes in the Canals of Dutch Literature

After reading Nene Ormes' Udda verklighet and John Ajvide Lindqvist's Låt den rätte komma in (Eng. Let the Right One In), I have somewhat uncharacteristically stuck to books in Swedish for my recreational reading this autumn. Having said, I should also state that I have not only been reading Swedish books, but also translations. In particular, I have been dipping my toes in the canals of Dutch literature, something which I think was long overdue. I have had a number of Dutch books in Swedish translation waiting on my shelves for quite some time (and while quite a few remain, the number has been reduced, at least), and what I have read so far has been really enjoyable.

My first Dutch literary acquaintance was Cees Nooteboom's novel Paradijs verloren (translated into Swedish by Per Holmer as Paradiset förlorat; Eng. title Lost Paradise). This short novel is divided into two halves (eventually connected through chance meetings); where the first half deals with the story of Alma, a young Brazilian woman who makes a pilgrimage to Australia with her best friend Almut after having suffered a particularly savage rape experience. This part of the novel focuses on questions of art and culture, both of which are also tied into the Romantic dream of aboriginal mythology and cosmology. Alma desperately seeks her childhood dreams of the presumably pure innocence of the these categories, which in reality can never quite be captured in such terms.

The second half of the novel deals with ageing literary critic Erik Zondag, whose reluctant visit to a retreat we are invited to join. Literature and the human condition are here fore-fronted by Nooteboom, and the chance meetings that bring his two narratives together serve to highlight this as well. All in all, it is a very interesting novel and I will definitely be reading more of Nooteboom's oeuvre.

Second out was another Dutch writer of the old garde, who sadly passed away at age 83 on October 30 this year, Harry Mulisch. I had a few books by Mulisch waiting on my shelves, but after a recommendation from a friend, I opted to begin with De Aanslag (translated into Swedish by Ingrid Wikén Bonde as Överfallet; Eng. title The Assault). It is the story of how a single horrible event, generated through a number of chance occurrences, shapes the entire life of the protagonist Anton Steenwijk.

On an evening in January, 1945, Anton's life is turned upside down when an infamous policeman and known Nazi collaborator is shot dead in front of the house of his neighbours, the Kortewegs, who move the body so that it is placed in front the Steenwijks' house. As a result, Anton loses his parents and his brother, and is placed in the care of his uncle and aunt after a harrowing experience.

Divided into five sections, set in five different time periods respectively (1945, 1952, 1956, 1966 and 1981), the novel follows Anton through his life and more specifically focuses on four chance encounters which all relate back to the traumatic events he so clearly is trying not to think about. These are accidental meetings with people who in one way or another played a part in that fateful evening's events (e.g. the son of the murdered policeman, the resistance fighter who shot the policeman, and the daughter of the neighbour who moved the body). The book is a depiction of the Second World War in the Netherlands, and its far-reaching impact on the Dutch people, as well as a crime novel or psychological thriller of sorts. Mulisch's writing drew me in, and made me contemplate difficult and sometimes troubling moral issues. He is most definitely an author I would urge anyone to read, and whom I will surely return to myself as well.

Finally, I am currently reading Anna Enquist's short story collection De kwetsuur (translated into Swedish by the aforementioned Per Holmer as Blessyr; Eng. title The Injury). Thus far I have read three out of ten stories, and they are quite impressive little pieces and highly recommended. Situated in different periods in Dutch history, these tales nevertheless focuses on individual humans and their life stories, or perhaps more accurately episodes of some kind of significance in these life stories.

When I am finished with Enquist's stories, I will most likely take a break from the canals of Dutch literature, as well as from my current reading trend (i.e. reading in Swedish), since there are many other things that call upon my attention. But rest assured. These canals will be revisited, because they have proved to be a very rich literary vein and they deserve much more than the mere dipping of toes.

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