Atria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Holland/Netherlands, literary fiction, Marjolijn van Heemstra, Publisher, Setting

‘In Search of a Name: A Novel’ by Marjolijn van Heemstra (translated by Jonathan Reeder)

Fiction – paperback; Atria International; 198 pages; 2020. Translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder.

Marjolijn van Heemstra, is a Dutch poet. Her beguiling novella In Search of a Name feels like a memoir but is actually a fictionalised account of her family history.

In this tale, originally published in the Netherlands in 2017, the narrator is a woman called Marjolijn, who is pregnant and trying to determine her unborn son’s name.

She has inherited a signet ring that belonged to her great uncle — a hero of the Dutch Resistance in the Second World War — and has promised her late grandmother, who bestowed it her, that she would name her firstborn after him.

But while Marjolijn likes the grand-sounding name — Frans Julius Johan — her partner, D, isn’t so sure. He challenges the idea of naming their baby after a man that neither of them knows very little about, apart from a story that’s been handed down within the family and may or may not be true.

D is right again. What I know can be summed up in a single sentence: Resistance hero delivers a parcel bomb disguised as a Sinterklaas present to an ex-Nazi.
I write “bomb”, but according to the family narrative, the bomb was always a “little bomb”, the Blackshirt was a “rat”, and Bommenneef [the nickname for her great uncle] “a rascal”. It was my grandmother’s generation that kept the tale alive, repeating it every chance they got, to whoever would listen. Rascal startles rat with bomblet.

Reads like a crime thriller

What follows is a highly personal detective story that reads like a historical crime thriller as Marjolijn seeks to find out the truth about her great uncle. Were his actions heroic? Or is there a darker side to the tale?

Her research takes her across the country — and even to Spain — as she tracks down leads and hunts out clues. She meets distant relatives, befriends fellow researchers working in the national archives and finds herself immersed in confidential dossiers, biased news stories and incomplete paperwork.

My irritation grows with every step. Why didn’t anyone take the trouble just to write down what happened? Why must I now make do with a couple of barely legible Ausweises and a pile of junk from a desk drawer? A bomb exploded, people were killed and men were sent to jail, lives were compromised, and all that’s left is this two-bit legend full of holes and cracks.

Working to a deadline

The book is structured around Marjolijn’s growing pregnancy — each chapter is headed with the number of weeks to go before her baby’s arrival — to hammer home the point that she’s working to a deadline.

Further suspense is created by the growing tension within Marjolijn’s relationship with her partner and her decision to ignore health advice when she is diagnosed with high blood pressure as a possible precursor to eclampsia.

When it looks likely that the birth may have to be induced, Marjolijn’s sense of panic is heightened, not by the birth itself, but at the lack of time to determine if her great uncle’s name is worthy of being handed down.

[…] my son has to be given the right name, and to do that I have to have the right story, and since the story I had turns out to be inaccurate I have to at least come up with a good ending — all’s well that ends well — but at the moment I am stuck in a cul-de-sac of unanswered emails and Facebook messages and I haven’t put anything right or even gotten my head around things, there are only questions that lead to more questions, I don’t even know any more if this is about courage and justice, who knows, maybe now it’s about chaos and regret.

Who knew that a story about research methods could be so exciting?

Blurred lines

What I liked most about In Search of a Name is the way the author teases out the blurred lines between fact and fiction, where nothing is as black and white as it might seem, and where family mythology, passed down from generation to generation, gains potency — and embellishment — over time.

At its heart, this novel is about truth and the ways in which it can become obfuscated, whether by accident or design.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Holland/Netherlands, literary fiction, Philibert Schogt, Publisher, Setting, Thunder Mouth Press

‘Daalder’s Chocolates’ by Philibert Schogt


Fiction – paperback; Thunder Mouth’s Press; 322 pages; 2005. Translated from the Dutch by Sherry Marx.

Joop Daalder, the youngest of three children, grows up in a large house in Holland under two emotionally distant parents who show him little love or affection. He is clumsy, has no friends and is constantly compared to his two sisters who share a talent for classical music.

Resolved to leading a lonely mediocre life, Joop is lifted out of his humdrum existence by a chance discovery: a passion for good food and, in particular, chocolate. Unfortunately no one understands this passion and he must rise above the ridicule cast upon him by family and friends.

While on a university excursion to France, Joop meets a chocolateer, Jerome Sorel, who offers him the chance of a lifetime. Against his parent’s wishes, Joop drops out of his art history course to accept Sorel’s offer of an apprenticeship. With just the clothes on his back and a small amount of cash for company, he hitchhikes across Holland to the little French town of Avallon and Monsieur Sorel’s old-fashioned chocolate shop.

Good food, good company and a  good career ahead of him, for the first time in his life Joop feels happy and at one with himself.

Later, when he falls in love with Emma, a Dutch nanny who lives in the same village, life couldn’t get any more sweeter… or could it?

Daalder’s Chocolates is a simple tale that charts one man’s life in pursuit of a dream: becoming a chocolateer and running his own shop. Reminiscent of a fairytale, it can be no coincidence that Joop often compares himself with an ugly duckling that has turned into a beautiful swan.

The circular narrative begins where it ends, with Joop as an old man on the brink of closing down his chocolate shop in Toronto because a super-deli has moved in next door. Unhappy, lonely and defeated, it’s almost like meeting the boyhood Joop all over again.

Set in Holland, France and Canada, the book is broad in scope, if occasionally lacking in detail. Sometimes the story jumps ahead without filling in the gaps, as it were, but whether this is poor writing or poor translation, it is difficult to tell. I suspect it may be the former because the chapters are often surprisingly (and sometimes annoyingly) short.

The characterisation, however, is strong and one can’t help but fall in love with Joop’s wife, Emma, even if you sometimes want to shake her by the shoulders and tell her to get a life. But it is Joop, the complicated, flawed and incredibly driven main character, that makes this book what it is.

I initially felt sorry for Joop, but then I grew to like and admire him, respecting his one-eyed pursuit of a personal dream. But later, I despised him, for ignoring the things that should have been important to him, such as his wife and child. But then was it any wonder Joop could not express his love for them when he had grown up in such an emotionally cold environment himself. In the end, I felt sorry for Joop, my feelings in many ways mirroring the circular narrative.

Ultimately, Daalder’s Chocolates is a heart-warming — and sometimes heart-wrenching — tale about finding your place in the world. It’s by no means a perfect book and in good need of some ‘fleshing’ out, but it’s an enjoyable one nonetheless. A word of warning though: the descriptions of food will make you feel a little on the hungry side, so if you’re reading this in bed, take some chocolate with you!