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Three years ago Banipal started promoting wider intercultural dialogue in the magazine by featuring non-Arab, non-Arabic works of literature under the heading “Guest Literature”. The successful series has seen writers from Slovenia, Germany and South Korea, also the USA, France, Romania and Vietnam. Here we present six very different Dutch fiction writers, introduced by poet and author Victor Schiferli of the Dutch Foundation for Literature.
IN THE DUTCH MOUNTAINS
A Brief Excursion into Fiction from The Netherlands through the works of six fiction writers
In 1981, Cees Nooteboom published a novel with the title In the Dutch Mountains. This was something extraordinary, since The Netherlands has more resemblance to the bottom of the sea than to the Swiss alps. We have no mountains, just a handful of hills, and meadows in abundance. (Of course, the title was meant to conjure up the idea that we were going to read something out of the ordinary.) The same, I would argue, goes for the cultural landscape of The Netherlands: we are a nation known for its painters (Rembrandt to Van Gogh), architects (Rem Koolhaas) and photographers (Ed van der Elsken) – their talents all easily recognisable since they do not need the language to communicate.
For somebody who is interested in international fiction or novels in translation, The Netherlands could seem like a flat land – because few writers have made it to that elusive thing: the international, award-winning bestseller. But there are in fact Dutch mountains, metaphorically speaking, and this special guest feature of Banipal is showcasing some outstanding new contemporary names in Dutch literature. On behalf of the Dutch Foundation for Literature in Amsterdam, where it is my task to keep foreign publishers informed about new books from Holland, I am grateful to Margaret Obank for giving me the opportunity to do this.
The six writers here share nothing except for the fact they are all writing in the same language. Does that make them literary relatives? I am not sure. When you write your first novel, do you write about your childhood in an Amsterdam suburb or do you look elsewhere for inspiration? One of the youngest names here, the poet Jan-Willem Anker, made his debut as a novelist with a fictional account of the life of Lord Elgin, who famously stole the marble sculptures and reliefs from the Acropolis, the ‘Elgin Marbles’ on display in the British Museum. The first chapter, which is included here, focuses on the death of the father of Lord Elgin when he was still a boy. Heartbreaking and meticulously written – but nothing Dutch about its theme.
Stephan Enter enjoyed success with his breakthrough novel called Grip in 2012. It has been translated into several languages, but not yet English or Welsh, and was awarded two major literary prizes. The story is about a group of four friends who are on a reunion trip in Wales to celebrate their 20-year friendship: three men, one woman. It appears that all the men have been in love with her – and that the one who won her heart was not the one who loved her the most. Enter’s way of writing resembles that other great Dutch writer, Willem Frederik Hermans: by telling a story in such a controlled way, the reader can’t do anything but surrender to the ideas of the writer. It was Hermans who famously said we live in a ‘sadistic universe’, and Enter’s story is an example of that.
Everything That Was Left by Hanna Bervoets is a non-chronological account from the eyes of TV editor Merel, who is trapped inside a building, where a TV show was being recorded, when an enormous explosion goes off outside. Nobody can leave, and nobody knows what has happened. As food supplies dwindle, tensions mount. How do we adapt to a radically new situation? What do we have to give up? And if everything that once was is no more, what do loyalty and friendship mean?
In The Disappearance of Robbert, Robbert Welagen plays a witty game, full of self-mockery, with his own life as a writer. The Robbert who disappears is also called Welagen. He is a twenty-five-year-old writer who, like the author, has written a novel entitled Lipari that won him a prize for the year’s best first novel. The longing to just step off the face of the earth seems to be present in other books from Holland, too, but this is a short novel which in the end is a moving story about unrequited love.
An author who started publishing his work later in his career, Benjamin Burg is the author of two short story collections and one novel, written with the atmosphere, control and maturity of similar American authors, such as Raymond Carver, John Cheever or Kevin Canty. The art of leaving things out is his speciality, and he does it to great effect in his understated short stories, such as “Restaurant Des Arenes”, in which a divorced father has dinner with his children. Finally, the author whose work reflects the traditional Dutch landscape the most is Franca Treur, who made a spectacular debut with Confetti on the Threshing Floor, a semi-autobiographical account about growing up in the Netherlands’s Protestant Bible Belt – where pop music, drugs, prositution and euthanasia are all mentioned in the same shameful, sinful vein. After being cheeky to her mother, the main character dreams that when Judgment Day comes around, God banishes her to hell: ‘The Lord God looks at her and says: Remove her from My sight. Cast her into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.’
These are not necessarily Dutch writers, these are just six contemporary writers who in their work devote themselves to themes such as doomsday, divorce, disappearance, religion, friendship and theft of art. I recommend their work and hope that one day their books will be available in English.
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