“To get the dollies dancing” is the Dutch equivalent of “opening up a can of worms”, which is precisely what happened after Jonathan invited me to compile my personal anthology of favourite Dutch short stories. There were worms and dancing dollies. It was a mess, but also hugely entertaining.
To begin with, I was forced to admit that – despite having a Dutch passport, writing novels in Dutch and living the life of a Dutchman in Amsterdam for more than thirty years – I am not a huge fan of Dutch literature. This brutal admission prompted a great deal of soul searching on my part, taking me all the way back to 1986, which is the year I re-emigrated to the Netherlands at the age of twenty, having spent most of my youth in South Africa, where I was transformed into a loyal speaker of the Queen’s English.
As I intended to start a new life in Amsterdam, I vowed to swiftly reacquaint myself with my mother tongue. Fortunately, I had a head start over other immigrants, because I could read and speak Dutch, which I cheekily supplemented with the Afrikaans vocabulary I had picked up at school in South Africa.
This delighted my new Dutch friends, but also became a source of embarrassment to me, so I began asking them to lend me their favourite Dutch books, hoping to improve my proficiency. These modern classics by authors like Hermans, Mulisch, Reve, Haasse and Wolkers all seemed somewhat introverted and insular, almost invariably containing some shadow of the nation’s great trauma: the occupation of the Netherlands and its colonies by German and Japanese forces. Many of the narrators also seemed to be struggling to free themselves from the religious strictures of an older generation, often resorting to some form of sexual exploration/liberation to achieve this.
When I cautiously mentioned this to a Dutch friend, he remarked that Dutch literature might indeed seem slightly boring to a newcomer, because it was more about style than about the story. “But don’t worry,” he added, “Because I also have this entire bookcase over here with works by Böll, Camus, Eco, Garcia Marques Kundera, Nabokov and all the others authors of the alphabet.”
And so I discovered that I could quite easily improve my proficiency in Dutch without reading a single word of Dutch literature. In fact, I am convinced that my knowledge of Dutch has given me greater access to foreign literature and culture than English ever could have, simply because so many great books from other cultures are available in Dutch translation.
Another thing that skewed my opinion of Dutch literature was the movie Turks Fruit (Turkish Fruit, 1973), which is based on a bestselling novel by Jan Wolkers. My Dutch friends loved this movie and invited me over to watch it on television, delighting in the weak jokes, wooden dialogue and unsubtle performances. Naturally, I refrained from sharing this opinion with them at the time, not wanting to spoil their fun and our budding friendship.
My subsequent encounters with Dutch movies were equally disappointing and so I stopped watching them almost entirely, which wasn’t a problem because Amsterdam’s many art-house cinemas (now sadly in decline) offered almost unlimited opportunities to watch the best movies from all corners of the globe, subtitled in Dutch.
To complicate things further, I enrolled at the University of Amsterdam and discovered that all the textbooks were in English and that I was completely free to write my exams and essays in English.
It was also around this time that I realised my written proficiency in Dutch would never match my ability in English, and so I began restricting myself to books and magazines in English, which were also freely available everywhere in Amsterdam.
In short, I never really made a conscious effort to avoid Dutch literature. It’s just that the Netherlands (and Amsterdam in particular) offers access to so many other cultures that it’s quite easy to overlook Dutch literature entirely.
Having dealt with the worms, it was time to get the dollies dancing, almost literally in this instance, because I decided to compensate for my woefully inadequate knowledge of local literature by asking Dutch authors, publishers, reviewers and book lovers in general to share their favourites with me. The idea being to read these stories, write a brief review and translate an excerpt into English, so that an international audience might join me as I acquainted myself with the stories and styles of some of the Netherlands’ best-loved authors.
You may rest assured, dear reader, that you’re getting these tips straight from the mouths of Dutch literary thoroughbreds, which is why I’ll also be dropping names and brief bios for those who suggested stories.
To make things even more exciting, the Dutch Foundation for Literature has taken note of my voyage of discovery and, who knows, all this attention may even result in an actual anthology of Dutch short stories in English.
Having said all that, here’s hoping you enjoy this bloemlezing (readers’ bouquet) of excerpts from Dutch short stories.