‘De vertalers’ (‘The Interpreters’) by Arnon Grunberg

Suggested by Caroline Mulder, my Dutch editor, who also edits the work of Arnon Grunberg and many other authors. Caroline suggested several other stories and authors, but I liked the triangular connection between us.

Caroline writes: “In just four pages, the reader is wrong-footed and the story proves to be far more horrific than you imagined,” succinctly summarising this harrowing story, in which we are introduced to a young woman and soon learn what she is capable of. Lara had a boyfriend who works at a gas station, which is five minutes’ walk from her mother’s house. She promised him she would be faithful, but she did not keep her promise. The pressure was too great. You need to blow off steam here. Sometimes the questioning goes on for five or six hours.
Questioning prisoners is like mopping with the tap open. So little comes out. They contradict one another. Or they all say the same. She often looks at the interpreters and asks: “Is that really all he said?”
She finds it hard to believe. But what can the interpreters do about it?
They also have a doctor present. He usually keeps to himself, as if he is above all this.
Sometimes they urinate on the prisoners during questioning. But only if the prisoner is not yet unconscious.
Farmers also urinate on their wounds to disinfect them.

From Hollands Maandblad, 2006. Available online in Dutch here

‘Een brommer op zee’ (‘A Scooter at Sea’) by J.M.A. Biesheuvel

Suggested by reader Jos on Twitter | The J.M.A. Biesheuvel Prize is annually awarded to the best short story collection in Dutch. Founded in 2015, the prize is crowd-funded and the only award for short fiction in the Netherlands.

Because Biesheuvel’s name is attached to the Netherlands’ only short-story prize, I had high hopes for this story, which proved to be absurd and entertaining, as well as poignant. During the night watch, a young deckhand sees a light approaching. A strange encounter unfolds.“How can you ride on water?” asked Isaac in amazement.
“It’s a question of practising,” said the man. “I started by placing a pin flat on the water’s surface. Then I progressed to heavier and heavier objects. I was building up to my scooter, of course, and eventually I rode my first laps on the city pond. Nowadays, I ride all over the world. I don’t go on land anywhere, but I have to eat, so I regularly ride up to ships. I prefer going in the dead of night, because everyone is asleep then. At first, I used to ride up to ships in the middle of the day, but that drove some people completely magoo. At first they’d say it was the best thing they’d ever seen in their lives, but then they’d started talking nonsense or going crazy. I’m planning to cover 40,000 kilometres by sea, maybe a couple of kilometres more, as long as I make it all the way around the Earth. I want to do something no one else has ever done. That has always been my ambition.”

In Maatstaf, Volume 19, 1971-1972. Available online in Dutch here

‘Dit is wat ik je beloof’ (‘This I promise you’) by Rob van Essen

Van Essen’s work was suggested by several avid readers, including Marieke Ruijzenaars, who is an account manager at Van Ditmar book importers. Van Essen just won the prestigious Libris Prize for his latest novel, De goede zoon (The Good Son). Congratulations, Rob! 

After crashing his bike, the narrator gets help from a female rowing team, who later seem to be on a quest to fulfil his erotic fantasies, drawing the reader deeper into the story, which undergoes a superb transformation from erotica to drama to tragedy in the closing paragraphs.Only when I hit the ground did time continue – with a thud and a crack. Other sounds followed. A tinny voice, more voices, calling, the sound of sloshing water, the damp rustle of footsteps through grass, the muffled sound of socks on asphalt. I saw nothing, then blue sky and white clouds, and branches covered with fresh leaves as fine as down.
And then I saw their faces above, as if it were a single face that kept changing shape and hair colour, and eye colour, and voice, and place. Eyelashes, freckles, damp lips, white teeth, dark nostrils, strong arms exposed, fingertips on my skin. And on top of that, stronger still, the scent of sweat and excitement, warm and fresh at once, like seawater warmed by the sun, like bodies that have endured hard labour, like girls who have been rowing.

Published in De Revisor, 2-3, 2011. Full story available online in Dutch here

‘Intern’ (‘Inside’) by Bertram Coleman

Suggested by Rob van Essen, because it seemed like a good idea to ask leading Dutch writers of short fiction to name authors whose work they admire or enjoy.

A grief-fuelled rant, full of violent fantasies, that sprawls into a comprehensive list of the kinds of people who anger and annoy the narrator, whose senses have been laid bare, following the sudden death of his beloved.I went back to work the day after the funeral. My colleague came up to me and placed his hand on my arm. The expression on his face said he shared my grief, but also that it was a good idea to get on with my life. He told me it had probably been a good way for Tessa to die. When I asked him what he meant, he said she hadn’t suffered and that was the main thing. So I asked him who the fuck he thought he was, deciding what the main thing was for my wife. Whether he had some sort of unique insight into her dying brain, allowing him to peek in and see which cause of death she preferred. A heart attack, out in the street, at the age of thirty. Excellent. Where do I sign up? Sounds fantastic. I told him that, in terms of his analogy, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if he dropped dead tomorrow. He gave me a strange look, as if I’d threatened him. Then he raised his hands and said he meant well. I told him to go to hell, and to keep a close eye on the paving as he went in.
That’s not really what happened.

Published in De Gids, 2015, No. 6. Full story in Dutch online here

‘Ijsregen’ (‘Ice Rain’) by Sanneke van Hassel

Several readers insisted that I read Van Hassel, whose work regularly features on long and shorts lists for Dutch literary awards. 

This nightmarish account of a woman trapped alone in her home by a blizzard first triggered my claustrophobia before opening the door to even darker misery, all mapped out in evocative and intricate detail.Walking back to the kitchen, I am chilled to the bone. I hear droplets falling the sink. Back home, my mother would turn open the silver taps and let the water trickle into the bath, to stop the pipes from freezing up. My survival strategy is limited: I glance in the pantry cupboard, I count the logs, I drag my mattress into the kitchen. Maybe I should shove the snow off the roof before it comes crashing down. Maybe I should shut off the main valve. Hank knows where that is.

The title story from a collection published by the Bezige Bij in 2005. This version was published in Tirade, 2001, Vol.45. Full story in Dutch is online here

‘Het rechtzetten van een misvatting’ (‘Rectifying a Misconception’) by Bob den Uyl

The most prestigious Dutch travel writing prize is named after Bob den Uyl. Several people said he deserved a place on my reading list, including fellow author Rob Waumans. 

Bob den Uyl’s effusive, eloquent and at times ornamentally hilarious tale of cycling woes beyond Dutch borders perfectly reflects the European tendency to distrust, disparage and dislike neighbouring nations, which is hardly surprising in the case of Netherlands, having been occupied by the Germans, French, Spanish, Romans and Vikings at one time or another. In the following excerpt, the narrator finds himself watching a football on television at German hotel in Cologne. 

Much to my dismay, the hotel owner, who was also in attendance, took it upon himself to inform the other members of the audience that I was Dutch and therefore undoubtedly gifted with unlimited insight into the art of football. They took it for granted, unspoken, that Cruyff and Van Hanegem were not only open books to me, but also regularly dropped in for a visit. It is truly remarkable that the winning of several aesthetically questionable trophies, manufactured from inferior materials and won by several Dutch clubs, bestows upon that nation’s inhabitants a certain esteem, despite the fact that they played no part whatsoever in the achievement. This is even more remarkable in Germany, where people seem to experience a certain personal shame on our behalf for the smallness of our country. Germans don’t quite know what to do with something small, and one is often treated with the kind of sympathetic generosity one displays when helping blind people cross busy intersections.

Published in Maatstaf, Volume 21, 1973


JG Ballard once said that the greatest novel of the 20th century was the medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy. Always healthily sceptical of the creative capacity of fiction, he was enchanted by the fictive potential in factual writing, textbooks, advertising copy, engineering reports, black box transcripts, political interviews, the Warren Commission Report and a medical volume called Crash Injuries. He saw that mass media and information technology were weaving fiction into the fabric of everyday life, and that … well, we’ll get to that very shortly. But I want to preface my selections with that thought by way of justification. You see, I’ve bent the rules slightly. By which I mean, I have driven a coach and horses through them. Here are my short fictions (non-fiction edition).