‘Het tillenbeest’ (‘The Mammary Beast’) by Jan Wolkers

Suggested by Peter Abelsen, novelist and translator of the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Tennessee Williams, Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen.

In just under 1,500 words, Wolkers sketches a vivid portrait of a seemingly ordinary family and its chequered past. A marble sphinx on the mantelpiece, endowed with spectacular breasts, reminds the narrator of an incident from the war. The author’s wry style shines through in this excerpt, in which a photo of his grandfather kick-starts the narrator’s memory. He has the light eyes and worried frown of an obsessive-compulsive. My mother told me, in the old days, when he’d come home, my gran would always say: Quick, set the cups straight! And the kids would turn the motif on the cups until it was lined up with the motif on the saucers. He wouldn’t greet anyone when he came in. He’d just stare at the cups. Then he’d grab his paper and, before lowering himself into the armchair, he’d check if there were any bits of fluff on the cushion. I look him in the eye. He’s looking at the photographer. You died of cancer, I think to myself. You reproduced yourself. I too will die of cancer. The tumour doesn’t fall far from the tree. When he first went to hospital, they put a tube up his bottom for his stools. But the disease filled his bowels with rampant toadstools and he soon had a whole sewerage system lying beside him in bed. There was no stopping it. Even so, he managed to get into a fight with the nurse, about an hour before he died, because she hadn’t placed the flowers I’d brought dead-centre on his bedside table.

From the collection Serpentina’s Petticoat, 1961. Available online in Dutch here

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