CategoryDutch

#2021InternationalBooker: Summer Brother by Jaap Robben

I enjoyed Jaap Robben’s earlier novel, You Have Me to Love. Like that book, Summer Brother (translated from Dutch by David Doherty) is narrated by a boy who has to adapt to a new family situation. In this case it’s 13-year-old Brian Chevalier, who lives in a caravan with his divorced father Maurice. Life isn’t easy: Maurice will do what it takes to get by, which leads to frequent absences, a certain reputation, and pressure from the landlords to settle his debts.

Brian has a severely disabled brother, Lucien, who lives in an institution. At the start of the novel, Maurice is asked if he’ll take Lucien home for the summer while the institution is being renovated. He’s not keen at first, but soon changes his mind on learning that he’ll be paid for the trouble.

Brian then has to learn to live with and care for his brother, who’s unable to speak. There’s always a risk that a character like Lucien will exist for the edification of others, rather than being allowed their own dignity. I think Robben largely avoids this, though Summer Brother is definitely Brian’s story rather than Lucien’s.

Something I particularly like is the way that Brian can’t process or articulate the emotional changes he’s going through. We see him become more compassionate towards Lucien as he spends more time with him, and Brian even starts to have a crush on Selma, a girl living at the institution. But Brian doesn’t explain the changes it his feelings, if he even notices them all. In that way, Robben puts Brian in a position analogous to Lucien’s, of not being able to express his innermost thoughts. It’s quite touching to see Brian grow so close to Lucien.

Published by World Editions.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

#Boekenweek2020: an extract from Two Blankets, Three Sheets by Rodaan Al Galidi

It’s time for my second stop on the UK blog tour for Boekenweek. Today I have an extract from Two Blankets, Three Sheets by Rodaan Al Galidi, translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder and published by World Editions.

The blurb goes like this:

Amsterdam Airport, 1998. Samir Karim steps off a plane from Vietnam, flushes his fake passport down the toilet, and requests asylum. Fleeing Iraq to avoid conscription into Saddam Hussein’s army, he has spent seven years anonymously wandering through Asia. Now, safely in the heart of Europe, he is sent to an asylum center and assigned a bed in a shared dorm—where he will spend the next nine years. As he navigates his way around the absurdities of Dutch bureaucracy, Samir tries his best to get along with his 500 new housemates. Told with compassion and a unique sense of humor, this is an inspiring tale of survival, a close-up view into the hidden world of refugees and human smugglers, and a sobering reflection of our times.

An extract from the novel follows next…

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#Boekenweek2020: an extract from The Blessed Rita by Tommy Wieringa

Today’s post is part of a UK blog tour to mark Boekenweek, an annual celebration of Dutch literature that takes place each spring in the Netherlands.

I’m pleased to share an extract from The Blessed Rita, the latest novel by Tommy Wieringa to appear in English, translated by Sam Garrett. I was impressed by Wieringa’s The Death of Murat Idrissi last year, so I’m looking forward to this one.

Here’s the blurb:

What is the purpose of a man? Living in a disused farmhouse with his elderly father, Paul Krüzen is not sure he knows anymore. The mill his grandfather toiled in is closed, the glory of the Great Wars is long past, and it has been many years since his mother escaped in the arms of a Russian pilot, never once looking back. What do they have to look forward to now?

Saint Rita, the patron saint of lost causes, watches over Paul and his best friend Horseradish Hedwig, two misfits at odds with the modern world, while Paul takes comfort in his own Blessed Rita, a prostitute from Quezon. But even she cannot protect them from the tragedy that is about to unfold.

In this darkly funny novel about life on the margins of society, Dutch sensation Tommy Wieringa asks what happens to those left behind.

If that’s piqued your interest, here is an extract from the book…

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The Death of Murat Idrissi: #MBI2019

Tommy Wieringa, The Death of Murat Idrissi (2017)
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (2019)

My reading for this year’s Man Booker International Prize begins with this novella by Dutch writer Tommy Wieringa, which draws its inspiration from a court case that the author attended in 2004.

We are introduced to Ilhan and her friend Thouraya, daughters of Moroccan immigrants to the Netherlands. During a visit of their own to Morocco, the young women are persuaded by their old acquaintance Saleh to conceal nineteen-year-old Murat Idrissi in the boot of their car for the journey back. When they return to Europe, they discover that Murat has died in transit; Saleh promptly disappears, leaving the women to work out for themselves what to do.

I particularly appreciated Wieringa’s portrait of characters caught between two cultures. When she was younger, Ilhan had a strong sense of herself as Dutch, one that seemed set to be reciprocated by society, but the response to 9/11 changed that:

Either you are with us, said the most powerful man in the world, or you are with the terrorists. The plans, his words – they broke her world, the whole world, in two, into we over here and them over there. And Ilhan became them. And her body became over there. She felt how the enmity nestled in her organs, how she became infected by the fear and the aversion of others. That is how she became what others thought they were seeing, a double transformation.

The women’s relationship with their Moroccan roots is complicated: for example, Thouraya is proud of the hardiness she has inherited from her father, but dismissive of what he endured to get to where he did. When Ilhan and Thouraya view living conditions in Morocco, it is clear they are doing so through Westernised eyes. Murat’s death brings these issues into sharp focus for the women, as they have a tangible reminder in their car boot of the real distance between themselves and where they’ve just been.

Wieringa’s characterisation can be broad-brush, but his writing (in Sam Garrett’s translation) is sharp. The use of a dead Moroccan as a plot device gives me pause, but on balance I think Wieringa honours the gravity of Murat’s situation, rather than just exploiting his death to teach the protagonists a lesson. Ultimately Murat remains the book’s centre, all the more so because he is denied a voice of his own.

I found The Death of Murat Idrissi a welcome addition to the MBIP longlist, and I will certainly be reading Wieringa again in the future.

Book details

The Death of Murat Idrissi (2017) by Tommy Wieringa, tr. Sam Garrett (2019), Scribe Publications, 102 pages, hardback. [UK edition] [Australian edition]

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

Bird Cottage – Eva Meijer: a EuroLitNetwork review

It has been a while, but I’m pleased to be back at the European Literature Network for this month’s #RivetingReviews section. The book I’m reviewing is Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer (translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett). It’s a novel about the life of a historical figure who was unknown to me: Gwendolen (Len) Howard, a concert violinist who, aged 40,changed her life and moved to a Sussex cottage to study the birds in her garden. She published two books, and her ideas were ahead of her time, but her work was not taken seriously by the scientific establishment.

Bird Cottage is a fascinating story; click here to read my review in full.

Book details

Bird Cottage (2016) by Eva Meijer, tr. Antoinette Fawcett (2018), Pushkin Press, 256 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

You Have Me to Love – Jaap Robben: a review for #BoekenweekUK

Welcome to the final stop on World Editions’ blog tour for Boekenweek, celebrating Dutch literature. Today I’m reviewing You Have Me to Love by Jaap Robben (translated by David Doherty). Robben is a poet, playwright and children’s author; Birk (to use the title of the Dutch version) is his first novel for adults. It won the 2014 Dutch Booksellers Away and the Dioraphte Prize. Having read the book, it’s not hard to see why.

Our narrator is young Mikael Hammermann, who lives with his parents, Dora and Birk, on an island somewhere between Scotland and Norway. There are only three houses on the island, and one of those is empty. Groceries arrive by boat every two weeks; Mikael is home-schooled, at least enough to do well in the tests that are sent to him periodically (and which he is allowed to complete in pencil, so they can be corrected before returning). Robben never places the island in a true geographical context, so throughout there’s a sense of dislocation which really comes into its own as the novel progresses.

The Hammermanns’ world is upended when, one day, Birk vanishes into the sea. The search for him yields nothing, though Mikael begins to see a tiny version of his father about the house – that is, until he’s forced to confront and reveal the full circumstances of Birk’s disappearance.

The rest of the novel chronicles life without Birk for mother and son. Dora’s attitude switches from blaming Mikael to something that he can’t quite read: for example, at one point Mikael’s mother announces abruptly that they’re going to swap bedrooms, ostensibly because he’s growing up and needs the bigger bed – but it still seems a strange thing to him. For his part, Mikael starts to help out the Hammermanns’ neighbour, Karl, with his fishing boat; though Dora is not keen, perhaps from a sense of possessiveness (for whom, is an open question). Mikael also attempts secretly to raise a gull chick in the island’s empty house, which is perhaps his way of proving himself to himself.

Jaap Robben

You Have Me to Love has a number of emotional turns that I wasn’t expecting – it’s really quite affecting. If you’d like a taste of the writing, Anne posted an extract from Doherty’s translation at Random Things Through My Letterbox yesterday. There’s also an animated short based on the book, which you can see here.

Book details

You Have Me to Love (2014) by Jaap Robben, tr. David Doherty (2016), World Editions, 256 pages, paperback (review copy).

World Editions Dutch literature blog tour for Boekenweek 

Boekenweek is an annual celebration of Dutch literature which has been held in the Netherlands since 1932. To mark Boekenweek this year, the publisher World Editions has organised a blog tour for three Dutch authors: Renate Dorrestein, Esther Gerritsen, and Jaap Robben. I’ll be taking part on 15 March, with a review of Jaap Robben’s novel You Have Me to Love. However, the tour starts today, with a profile of Esther Gerritsen over at Books By Women. You can see the other stops on the blog tour in the poster below (click the image to enlarge).

Peirene’s Fairy Tales: The Man I Became

verhelstI got a bit behind with this year’s Peirene Press books, so I thought I’d blog them all in a row. A Belgian novel begins the 2016 series, which has the overall title of 2016 ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’. Whatever you might  anticipate for the start of that series, chances are you’re not expecting the tale of a talking gorilla…

The narrator of Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became used to live in the trees, until he and other members of his family were captured and taken to the ‘New World’. There, they were taught to speak, made to dress like humans, and set to work in a theme park named Dreamland. There’s no proper rationale for all this, nor does there need to be: we’re dealing with a timeless space in which this can happen, and the matter-of-fact tone in David Colmer’s translation sells it completely.

It’s tempting to try to read Verhelst’s novel as an allegory, and there are certainly some scenes that lend themselves to a real-world interpretation, such as the image of gorillas roped together in a forced march across the desert. Ultimately, though, I think The Man I Became has to be taken on its own terms, because it creates its own reality so fully. For me, the key question raised by the book is: what does it mean to be human, exactly? The animals taken to Dreamland are given different D-shaped pins to wear depending on their rank, and “people with two gold Ds pinned to their chests were fully fledged humans.” So, if humanity can be granted with the gift of a badge, what does it really mean?

This is where the ‘end of innocence’ comes in, as Verhelst’s narrator realises the truth about Dreamland, and has to decide what kind of person he wants to be. The Man I Became is an intriguing start to Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, one that left me wondering what would come next. We’ll find out in a few days’ time.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Man I Became (2013) by Peter Verhelst, tr. David Colmer (2016), Peirene Press paperback.

The Dyslexic Hearts Club by Hanneke Hendrix

DyslexicHeartsThis is the first novel to appear in English by Dutch writer Hanneke Hendrix (the translation is by David Doherty). It has a delightfully dark streak of humour that put me in mind of Alina Bronsky’s work – always a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

Our narrator, Anna van Veen, wakes up in hospital with burns and a collapsed lung. She is sharing a room with two other burn patients; this isn’t necessarily the best situation for Anna, because she likes her own company:

When I stayed at home, people thought it reflected on them, that I meant something by it, that there was something wrong with them. You might think you’re playing the lead, the star of your own show, but when it comes right down to it you’re mostly just a bit player in other people’s lives. That’s how I see it, in any case.

She’s also not the best reader of people (in her husband’s words, she has a ‘dyslexic heart’). Still, here she is, with a couple of other misfits: a grouchy old woman named Vandersteen; and a younger woman who’s still too ill to speak (it turns out later that these two are named Anna as well). Something’s not quite right, though: the women’s room is guarded by a police officer; and the nurses who attend them seem less sympathetic to their situation than might be expected.

The events that led the trio to their hospital room are only gradually revealed – though things ramp up in the second half, when the women go on the run, and Anna goes from a ‘bit player’ to the uneasy co-star of her own road movie. I’m being cagey about the details because so much of the enjoyment of The Dyslexic Hearts Club comes from the uncertainty of wondering where it’s going to go. But I will say that it was worth the journey, and I’ll be looking out for more of Hendrix’s work in the future.

Elsewhere

  • A review of The Dyslexic Hearts Club at Poppy Peacock Pens.
  • An article by Hendrix about the novel at European Literature Network.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Dyslexic Hearts Club (2014) by Hanneke Hendrix, tr. David Doherty (2016), World Editions paperback

Bert Wagendorp, Ventoux (2013/5)

Ventoux

Cycling is concrete and manageable. A bike, a road, a man: nothing could be simpler. In cycling you need only call on the top layer of your brain and introspection is not immediately  necessary, Sometimes exhaustion ensures that images rise to the surface which you had forgotten you were carrying with you, but you can always dismiss them as exhaustion-induced hallucinations.

– from Ventoux by Bert Wagendorp (translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent), which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

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