In the run-up to the International Booker Prize on May the 19th, The Oxford Blue is keeping you up to speed with reviews of the shortlisted novels.
‘‘Name a single Dutch author.’’ At this question my otherwise far better-read Oxford friends go blank. It is not an oversight on their part: Dutch literature has been awfully and very sparsely translated into English. For example, one of the post-war classics of the Dutch literary canon is The Evenings (1947) by Gerard Reve, the kind of book every Dutch schoolboy gets forced down his throat and subsequently hates. Reve was a brilliantly provocative queer writer: he was put on trial for blasphemy after publishing his prose poem Nearer to You, in which he described making love to God with the latter incarnated in the body of a donkey. A rough translation of the most notorious excerpt reads:
‘‘When God incarnates himself again in living matter, he will return as a donkey, capable of uttering a few syllables at best, misunderstood, maligned and flogged. Yet I’ll understand him and at once I’ll go to bed with him, putting bandages around his hooves, so that I won’t get too many scratches as he writhes and climaxes.’’
Nevertheless, The Evenings was not translated into English until 2016. Another classic, The Darkroom of Damocles (1958) by Willem Frederik Hermans was translated twice into English, but with more than forty years in between.
When I therefore found out that the young Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (28) had been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, I was naturally thrilled. Rijneveld is the first Dutch author to make the shortlist. Her novel The Discomfort of Evening (De Avond is Ongemak) is a phenomenal portrayal of a family tragedy in its Freudian dimensions, containing an all-too relevant social critique.
The setting is a Reformed farming family living in the Dutch countryside. One winter day, their eldest son goes out ice skating on the local pond. His little sister Jas, fearing that her father might kill her pet rabbit and serve it at Christmas dinner, prays to God that He might take her brother instead. When evening falls a neighbour delivers her brother’s frozen corpse, which he has had to fish out of the pond. This trauma rapidly unravels the relations between the parents and their remaining children. After the death of the first-born the mother sinks into depression and anorexia, while the father only breaks his silence to quote Scripture at his cowering children. This is a story of an arrested ‘coming-of-age’. Jas, the protagonist who should otherwise embark upon the exhilarating phase of puberty, is consistently denied any kind of individualisation:
‘‘Suddenly I thought of Belle’s friendship book. Mother has crossed out my answer to the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and replaced it with ‘A good Christian’.’’ (162)
It would not be pointless academism to read this novel side by side with Freud’s Future of an Illusion and Moses. Predictably, Jas grows up in a state of enforced infantilism with its logical end in neurosis. All we know her by is an abbreviated name, Jas, which in Dutch means ‘coat’; a figurative and literal coat she categorically refuses to take off, fearing and denying the advent of her own budding breasts. Her naïve awareness of her sexual development can only be voiced through Christian symbolism and images from farming life, producing this wonderful and bizarre amalgam:
‘‘My fascination with little penises must have arisen from those naked angels; when I was ten years old I removed them from the Christmas tree and stroked the cold porcelain between their firm little legs, as if it were a piece of shell in the poultry grit.’’ (125)
Meanwhile, the dead brother lives on as a name and ideal, a haunting absence of which Jas’ parents forbid any mention. Jas’ coat is also the cloth of mourning: ‘‘after a loss everyone wears a black raincoat’’, Rijneveld wrote in her first poetry collection. A deep-rooted guilt for her brother’s death leads Jas to fantasise about her body being exhibited in a coffin buttocks upward or hanging from a noose in her father’s barn. Admittedly, one needs a strong stomach for the often scatological imagery and a stronger heart for the explicit suicidal musings and pathological delusions.
A puritan atmosphere might not exactly be the first thing that you associate with The Netherlands. However, for all its image as a weed-smoking, pill-popping, liberal-secular paradise (here speaks a proud Amsterdammer), we remain among the few countries in Europe where major political parties have an explicitly religious agenda, defending that most boring and anxiety-ridden legacy of Protestantism, Calvinism. Governmental funding for ‘special’ (read: religiously oriented) primary and secondary education has been enshrined in the constitution for over a century; any attempts to abolish that clause have so far come to a dead end. Rijneveld’s novel is brilliant not just for its oscillation between real-surreal or its unique topical metaphors. Its seemingly local scope should not mislead the reader: this compact and gruesome family drama is a indictment of the repression/regression that religion effects in the domestic and educational sphere nationwide. The fact that a young author chooses such material demonstrates that sixty years after Reve’s acquittal at the ‘donkey trial’, our oft-invoked ‘Judaeo-Christian heritage’ remains a pernicious influence.
To an English public, The Discomfort of Evening is not an easy read: at its most dream-like and hallucinatory moments, it is more poem than novel. Yet the translation by Michele Hutchinson facilitates it considerably by breaking up the longer Dutch sentences in Jas’ breathless monologues, without diminishing their shock value. To my mind Rijneveld’s unprecedented achievement fully deserves to stand as a representative of Dutch literature to the world.