Literary Lowlands: Dutch authors in English at ABC

Eons ago, when I first started working for The American Book Center, answering the question “Where are your Dutch books in English?” might have produced a little uneasy shuffling and embarrassed pointing at what was, to be perfectly honest, a rather pathetic display on one shelf. One of the books on it was always The Happy Hooker. The other was at the other end of the spectrum: Max Havelaar by Multatuli. When it was in print, which it wasn’t always, we had The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch. And perhaps later, Tessa de Loo’s The Twins. Sometimes there would be a couple of Baantjer novels, and there was once, very briefly, a collection of short stories about Amsterdam in English, that featured some Dutch authors.

So while our Dutch customers were used to being able to get literature from all over the world translated into their own language, it seemed like nobody in the English-speaking publishing world was very much interested in Dutch literature.

But then came Stieg Larsson. Not Dutch, but from somewhere round here (because isn’t Holland part of Scandinavia or something?), and he managed the sort of great feat that brings snorts of derision from the snobbier bookseller: he wrote The Millennium Trilogy. Hailed as the new Da Vinci Code, the three books have crossed cash desks in their millions, bought by people who don’t consider themselves readers. And he did that while not even having written them in English.

So now it seems, publishers are finally a bit more interested in translating foreign fiction, and that has resulted in the rapid expansion of our Dutch Literature sections. Do You Read Me? asked ABC’s Fiction buyers Renate, Simone and Jilles,  to tell us about the titles they stock.

Tessa De Loo – The Twins

Two elderly women, one Dutch and one German, meet by chance at the famous health resort of Spa. They recognize in the other their twin sister they believed to be lost. They begin to tell each other their life stories – the last chance to bridge a gulf of almost seventy years. In this monumental novel, Tessa de Loo compellingly weaves the story of two twin sisters separated in childhood with that of two countries opposed in war, and depicts, in a simple yet harrowing prose, the effects of nature and nurture on the individual.

Marieke van der Pol – Bride Flight

It is 1953, and the last great transcontinental air race from London to Christchurch is about to begin, but even before the KLM plane has left the runway, it has already become famous as the “bride flight” for its cargo of brides-to-be flying out to join their fiancés on the other side of the world. Among them are Ada, Marjorie and Esther, who all have their own reasons for wanting to leave the past behind and make a fresh start. And then there’s Frank, a charismatic bachelor with big dreams for the future, whose path will continue to cross with each of the women as they build very different lives for themselves in New Zealand. It is only when they meet again, years later at Frank’s funeral, that the three women realise just how tightly their lives have been bound together by what happened on that fateful voyage.

Kader Abdolah – My Father’s Notebook

On a holy mountain in the depths of Persia, there is a cave with a mysterious cuneiform carving deep inside it. Aga Akbar, a deaf-mute boy from the mountain, develops his own private script from these symbols and writes passionately of his life, his family and his efforts to make sense of the changes the twentieth century brings to his country. Exiled in Holland a generation later, Akbar’s son, Ishmael, struggles to decipher the notebook, reflecting how his own political activities have forced him to flee his country and abandon his family. As he gets closer to the heart of his father’s story, he unravels the intricate tale of how the silent world of a village carpet-mender was forced to give way to one where the increasingly hostile environment of modern Iran has brought the family both love and sacrifice.

Kader Abdolah – House of The Mosque

Welcome to the house of the mosque…Iran, 1950. Spring has arrived, and as the women prepare the festivities, Sadiq waits for a suitor to knock on the door. Her uncle Nosrat returns from Tehran with a glamorous woman, while on the rooftop, Shahbal longs only for a television to watch the first moon landing. But not even the beloved grandmothers can foresee what will happen in the days and months to come. In this uplifting bestseller, Kader Abdolah charts the triumphs and tragedies of a family on the brink of revolution.

Marjolijn Februari – Book Club

Thirty-year-old Theresa Pellikaan is typical of the wealthy middle classes – with her respectable background, successful husband and house in an apparently sleepy, yet powerful, rich village. She works in a gallery, also typical of her type. When her former schoolmate Ruth Ackermann, brought up in the same village, makes waves with an international bestseller, but none of the villagers ever mention her achievement, not even the literary circle of Theresa’s father, famous civil rights scholar Randolf Pellikaan, Theresa begins to wonder why. It can’t only be because it’s not ‘literature’. It emerges that there is a dark secret in the village. Every member of the book club has a reason to keep quiet and Ruth Ackerman’s novel threatens to bring the past into the present, with devastating results. Unable to cope with the silence, Theresa investigates, no matter the consequences.

Arnon Grunberg – Amuse-Bouche

Stealing glimpses into the bizarre, garrulous, and lonely lives of various characters—ranging from a disillusioned, rich widow to a hopeful, young student—this collection of vignettes reveals the joys and pains in people’s private lives. Moving easily between cynical, high-society players and middle-class waiters to the claustrophobic quarters of an Amsterdam apartment and a swanky hotel in Las Vegas, these tales reveal moments of absurdity and happiness at every turn.

Arnon Grunberg – Phantom Pain

A one-time literary novelist of some respectability, now brought low by the double insult of obscurity and crippling debt, Robert G. Mehlman is a man in need of money and recognition, fast. But Mehlman’s publisher is only interested in his long overdue novel, since the people don’t want short stories, and his portfolio was liquidated months ago. So, it is to culinary writing that he turns. A practiced decadent, a habitual spendthrift, and a serial womanizer, he has, ostensibly, all the right qualities. But the path to fame is never a smooth one.

Phantom Pain is the bitterly funny but unpublished manuscript of Mehlman’s autobiography. In it, he tells the parallel stories of his decaying marriage and his puzzling affair with a woman he meets by chance and who accompanies him on the road. Their journey takes them on a chauffeur-driven, midnight run away from New York City to Atlantic City where they gamble away most of Mehlman’s remaining funds and then north, to Albany, where he finds unlikely salvation and the inspiration for his book, Polish-Jewish Cuisine in 69 Recipes.

Framed by Mehlman’s son’s account of his famous father, this novel-within-a-novel is a darkly hilarious tale of a writer’s fall and his subsequent rise. Phantom Pain has all the charcteristic mixture of slapstick and stark despair that has made Arnon Grunberg one of the most interesting, certainly the funniest, and arguably the best Dutch writer working today.

Arnon Grunberg – Jewish Messiah

One of the great provocateurs of world literature has written perhaps his most outrageous and morally necessary novel: the story of a confused young man from a family with a Nazi past who decides he will devote his life to redeeming the suffering of the Jews in his own unorthodox way.

What is it to the sixteen-year-old Swiss youth Xavier Radek that his grandfather served in the SS? Why are Xavier’s parents so quiet, so furtive, so uninterested in doing anything with their lives, in pursuing any great causes? Not that there seem to be many great causes on offer in Basel, Switzerland, at least within reach of a restless, socially nervous and – let’s admit it – not notably gifted young man. Until, that is, Xavier meets some members of the Basel Jewish youth group and comes to know a boy named Awromele, son of a local rabbi. Suddenly the light goes on: this group of people, who have suffered so much, need his help, and he will not stint at giving it to them. So it is that young Xavier decides to convert to Judaism and to begin his long journey to influence and, in the end, to infamy. With him at every step is the rabbi’s son Awromele, first as his guide, then as his lover, and finally as his devoted right-hand man.

Although Awromele arguably bears some responsibility for the botched circumcision that costs Xavier his left testicle, and while his decision to coax Xavier into collaborating on the first translation of Mein Kampf into Yiddish is of questionable taste, and his sexual promiscuity can often be hurtful, on the deeper issue of emotional fidelity there can be no doubt. Awromele sticks by Xavier’s side through life’s every turn: when Xavier’s mother’s sexual addiction to her favorite kitchen knife creates ugly domestic strife; when Xavier’s father takes his own life; when Xavier transplants the two young men to Amsterdam so he can attend art school; when the two migrate to Israel; when Xavier enters politics; when he is elected Israeli prime minister; and when he chooses the nuclear option.

Both a great love story and a grotesque farce, both an assault on the most well- guarded pieties and taboos of our age and a profound reckoning with the limits of human guilt, cruelty, and suffering, The Jewish Messiah is without question Arnon Grunberg’s masterpiece.

Ray Kluun – Love Life

Dan and Carmen have it all, it seems: They are young, rich, good-looking, satisfied in their work and love life, and are the parents of a beautiful three-year-old daughter. When Carmen is diagnosed with breast cancer, Dan is unable to cope with her illness and the changes this brings to their happy, yuppie family life. While the beautiful and optimistic Carmen submits to chemotherapy and eventually a mastectomy, hedonistic Dan tries to find solace with his buddies and in several flings before he finally stops running away and succeeds in supporting Carmen in her decision to end her life with dignity. Love Life is an account of a terminal illness that is devoid of glitz or fake sentiment. Distressing hospital situations and spot-on characterizations of doctors and therapists alternate with the many heart-wrenching moments through the course of Carmen’s illness, as both she and Dan come to terms with what commitment really means. Love Life is completely unapologetic, extremely controversial, but ultimately uplifting and life-affirming.

Ray Kluun – The Widower

Following his wife Carmen’s funeral, chronicled so movingly in Love Life, Dan tries to pick up the pieces. He is now the sole parent of little Luna. But inevitably in his grief he goes right off the rails. His friends worry for him and for Luna, and Rose finds it difficult to reconnect with him. His hedonism becomes self-destructive and deep down he knows it’s better to have Luna stay with friends than for her to witness his decline. He sells his share of the business to his partner and goes on a drug-addled holiday to Ibiza, where he witnesses 9/11. His relationship with Rose is virtually over, though she can never quite bring herself to abandon him completely.

Dan reaches rock bottom and realises he can’t go on like this. His friends advise him to go on a long trip, taking Luna with him, and to try and take stock of his life. He decides to take Luna to Australia, via Bali and Thailand. There as they travel across the continent they begin to tentatively establish a relationship – a new relationship – and Dan finally comes to realise what it is he wants and needs in his life.

Saskia Noort – Back to the Coast

Maria has money problems, two children from a failed marriage, and a depressive boyfriend. When she becomes pregnant, she decides not to keep the baby and then the letters start to arrive. Threatening letters, from pro-life activists she thinks at first, but then she begins to suspect others—even her own boyfriend. She flees to her sister’s house, redolent with memories of a childhood she does not want to revisit. As the death threats follow her to her hiding place, Maria begins to fear not only for her life but for her own sanity.

This is relentless suspense writing; it is a description of Maria’s hellish descent into a world of induced paranoia.

Saskia Noort – The Dinner Club

When Evert dies in his burning villa, everything points to suicide. The other members of the “dinner club,” a group of five women who meet regularly and whose husbands do business together, rally around to support Babette, his grieving widow. But events soon spiral out of control. Within weeks, a member of the club falls from the balcony of a hotel and dies. Something is poisoning their smug world of flashy SUVs, coffee mornings, and wine-filled evenings and bringing death in its wake. Imagine Desperate Housewives scripted by Patricia Highsmith. That’s The Dinner Club.

Arthur Japin – In Lucia’s Eyes

Amsterdam, 1758, and a man is artfully seducing a woman. He is, to all appearances, Monsieur le Chevalier de Seingalt; she is a courtesan, well-known in Amsterdam for the fact that she never removes her veil. He sets her a challenge: if she can find a woman who has suffered after falling in love with him, she is entitled to resist his charms; if not, she should play his game. What Seingalt doesn’t know is that he has already met the veiled woman many years ago, in another life. What Lucia doesn’t know is that Seingalt will go down in history as one of the world’s greatest lovers, Casanova. A deliciously entertaining and moving story of innocence and experience, love and sacrifice, In Lucia’s Eyes takes the reader on an entrancing journey from the canals of Amsterdam to those of Venice, painting a glorious portrait of the eighteenth century.

Arthur Japin – The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi

In 1837, two young African princes arrive in Holland. At the invitation of Dutch emissaries to West Africa, the king of the Ashanti has sent his son and nephew to receive the blessings of a European education. But unbeknownst to the king, the boys are to become pawns in the brutal game of the illicit slave trade.

As they enter a dreamlike, sometimes violent, altogether bewildering world, moving from a Dutch boarding school and its terrors to the Dutch royal court, their common experience will pull the once inseparable cousins onto divergent paths. For the one called Kwame, the new life will be his undoing. Enlisting in the Dutch colonial army, he will return to the land of his ancestors to face a truth that will destroy him. But Kwasi will awaken more slowly, spending a lifetime convinced he has found a place in a world not his own. Only in the year 1900, reconstructing his past through an intricate series of flashbacks as his light begins to fade on a barren coffee plantation in Indonesia, will he discover the extent of his self-deceptions.

A feat of literary ventriloquism reminiscent of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Arthur Japin’s internationally acclaimed first novel, based on an astonishing true story, is a fully original exploration of the meaning of friendship, belonging and honor.

Multatuli – Max Havelaar

Max Havelaar – a Dutch civil servant in Java – burns with an insatiable desire to end the ill treatment and oppression inflicted on the native peoples by the colonial administration. Max is an inspirational figure, but he is also a flawed idealist whose vow to protect the Javanese from cruelty ends in his own downfall. In Max Havelaar, Multatuli (the pseudonym for Eduard Douwes Dekker) vividly recreated his own experiences in Java and tellingly depicts the hypocrisy of those who gained from the corrupt coffee trade. Sending shockwaves through the Dutch nation when it was published in 1860, this damning exposé of the terrible conditions in the colonies led to welfare reforms in Java and continues to inspire the fair trade movement today. Roy Edwards’s vibrant translation conveys the satirical and innovative style of Multatuli’s autobiographical polemic. In his introduction, R. P. Meijer discusses the author’s tempestuous life and career, the controversy the novel aroused and its unusual narrative structure.

Tommy Wieringa – Joe Speedboat

When Frankie Hermans emerges from a coma after 200 days, he knows his life is never going to be the same again. For a start, he can’t talk, he can’t walk and it’s a struggle even to wield a pen. And then there’s Joe Speedboat – a boy who arrived in the sleepy village of Lomark like a blazing comet and who’s been stirring things up ever since. Whether setting off bombs, racing mopeds or building a bi-plane, Joe has the touch of a magician and the spirit of a daredevil. He also sees a use for Frankie’s good right arm beyond writing: as a champion arm-wrestler Frankie will be strong enough to impress his friends, and maybe even win the favour of the gorgeous, golden-haired girl who has them all in a spin. Full of vitality, verve and chutzpah, Joe Speedboat tells the fast-paced story of an unlikely friendship between two boys, and of their lightning dash towards adulthood.

Gerbrand Bakker – The Twin

When his twin brother dies in a car accident, Helmer is obliged to return to the small family farm. He resigns himself to taking over his brother’s role and spending the rest of his days ‘with his head under a cow’.

After his old, worn-out father has been transferred upstairs, Helmer sets about furnishing the rest of the house according to his own minimal preferences. ‘A double bed and a duvet’, advises Ada, who lives next door, with a sly look. Then Riet appears, the woman once engaged to marry his twin. Could Riet and her son live with him for a while, on the farm?

The Twin is an ode to the platteland, the flat and bleak Dutch countryside with its ditches and its cows and its endless grey skies.

Hella S. Haasse – The Tea Lords

Rudolf leaves his comfortable origins in Delft by ship for Java to help run the family’s estates there. He moves from plantation to plantation, attempting to understand the ways of the local peoples, their version of Islam and their relationship to their land. On a visit to the capital, Jakarta, he falls in love with a teenage girl, Jenny, who he courts surreptitiously via his sister, with grave consequences for the reality of their relationships. Eventually they marry, and make a hard colonist-couple’s life theirs; they bear, lose and raise children, before Jenny on her visit to the home country discovers all the comforts of which she has been deprived in Java. Back at the plantation homestead, as the back-breaking work of establishing and maintaining business takes its toll on Rudolf, Jenny becomes estranged from him, and the bitter resentments of relatives eat at her until a terrible solution is achieved.

Harry Mulisch – The Assault

The Assault deals with the consequences for the lone survivor of a Nazi retaliation on an innocent family after a collaborator named Fake Ploeg is found killed outside their home.  An absolute classic!

Harry Mulisch – The Discovery of Heaven

On a cold night in Holland, Max Delius – a hedonistic, yet brilliant astronomer who loves fast cars, nice clothes and women – picks up Onno Quist, a cerebral chaotic philologist who cannot bear the banalities of everyday life. They are like fire and water. But when they learn they were conceived on the same day, it is clear that something extraordinary is about to happen. Their worlds become inextricably intertwined, as they embark on a life’s journey destined to change the course of human history. A magnum opus that is also a masterful thriller.

Harry Mulisch – Siegfried

A bracing meditation on the nature of evil and a moving evocation of the human heart, Siegfried is one of Harry Mulisch’s most powerful novels. After a reading of his work, renowned Dutch author Rudolf Herter, who had recently commented in a television interview that it may be only through fiction that the uniquely evil figure of Adolf Hitler can be truly comprehended, is approached by an elderly couple. The pair reveal that as domestic servants in Hitler’s Bavarian retreat in the waning years of the war, they were witness to the jealously guarded birth of Siegfried—the son of Hitler and Eva Braun. For more than fifty years they have kept silent about the child they once raised as their own. Only now and only to Herter are they willing to reveal their astonishing story.

Harry Mulisch – The Procedure

A haunting and fascinating novel about two men who try to create life but fail. In the late sixteenth century, Rabbi Jehudah Löw, in order to guarantee the safety of the Jews in Prague, creates a golem by following a procedure outlined in a third-century cabalist text. Four hundred years later, Victor Werker, a Dutch biologist mourning the loss of his stillborn daughter, causes an international uproar when he creates a complex organic clay crystal that can reproduce and has a metabolism. But his unsettling discovery takes its toll as his inner and outer demons pursue him around the world, from California to Venice, Cairo, and Jerusalem.

Willem Frederik Hermans – Beyond Sleep

A modern classic of European fiction, a hilarious and captivating story set beyond the edge of the civilized word, as one man approaches a breaking point.

The young Dutch geologist Alfred Issendorf is determined to win fame for making a great discovery. To this end he joins a small geological expedition, which travels to the far north of Norway, where he hopes to prove a series of craters were caused by meteorites, but ultimately realizes he’s more likely to drown in a fjord or be eaten by parasites.

Unable to procure crucial aerial photographs, and beset by mosquitoes and insomnia in his freezing leaky tent, Alfred becomes increasingly desperate and paranoid. Haunted by the ghost of his scientist father, unable to escape the looming influence of his mother, and anxious to complete the thesis that will make his name, he moves toward the final act of vanity which will trigger a catastrophe.

A deadpan comedy often subtly calling up the works of Heller or Vonnegut at their best, Beyond Sleep is a unique and illuminating examination of how hard it is to be a true pioneer in the modern world. Beyond Sleep is a masterpiece.

Willem Frederik Hermans – The Darkroom of Damocles

During the German occupation of Holland, tobacconist Henri Osewoudt is visited by a man named Dorbeck, who strangely proves to be Osewoudt’s spitting image in reverse. Dorbeck assigns Osewoudt to commit a series of dangerous assignments, but things quickly go awry, with Osewouldt eventually killing his own wife. After the war, Osewoudt is taken for a traitor and captured. Osewoudt cannot prove that he received assignments from Dorbeck—he cannot even prove that his doppelganger ever existed.

Did we miss any? Tell us about them!

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