20 books of summer, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gerbrand Bakker, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Twin’ by Gerbrand Bakker

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 345 pages; 2008. Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker is a quietly understated novel that brims with a slow-moving rage and a gentle, long-lived grief. It’s a story about loss, resentment and thwarted opportunities and examines what happens to people who — for whatever reason — don’t take things into their own hands, letting circumstances and family obligations dominate their lives.

A farmer’s lot

Told in the first person from the perspective of a 55-year-old farmer, Helmer Van Wonderen, nothing much seems to happen and yet a lifetime of hurt is encapsulated in this coolly observed tale.

It’s set in the Waterlands region of the Netherlands, where Helmer now runs the family farm — 20 sheep and a handful of milking cows — single-handedly. His aged father, with whom he has a difficult relationship, has been installed in a bedroom upstairs, seemingly locked away and treated like an unwelcome lodger.

The tension between father and son is long-running, stemming from the death of Helmer’s twin, Henk, more than 30 years ago. Henk was the favoured son. He was in love with a girl called Riet and was set to inherit the farm. But when he died in a car accident, Helmer had to put his university studies on hold and return home. He has remained there ever since.

I’ve been scared all my life. Scared of silence and darkness. I’ve also had trouble falling asleep all my life. I only need to hear one sound I can’t place and I’m wide awake.

Now, having never married nor had children, Helmer is reassessing his life, wondering how he has so little to show for all the years that have come to pass. He realises he is the last in the line of Van Wonderens and becomes sentimental by this fact.

Without a wife, without kids and with a decrepit father who’s never wasted a word on family in my presence, I never expected myself to get sentimental about my own flesh and blood. Is it the farm? Our farm? A collection of buildings, animals and land I didn’t want anything to do with, an entity that was forced on me, but gradually became part of me?

He’s becoming increasingly agitated with his father, telling his neighbour Ada that his dad is going senile and that’s why she can’t go upstairs to say hello to him. There are other disturbing behaviours that indicate Hemler has a cruel streak.

But he’s also a man who has dreams. When he finds out another neighbour has sold his farm and moved to Denmark, Helmer wonders why he can’t pursue that kind of path, too. He sells three sheep so he can buy a detailed map of Denmark, which he gets framed and hangs on his bedroom wall. Every night, before sleep, he stares at the map and says aloud three or more town names, almost like an affirmation that one day he will get to visit them for real.

His ennui is further shaken by news the local livestock dealer is retiring, quickly followed by the milk tank driver. Is it time for Helmer to do something different too?

A stranger calls

When Riet, newly widowed, gets in touch three decades after Henk’s death, Helmer is presented with an opportunity to have his life shaken up a little. Riet asks him whether her son, who is also named Henk, could come and stay awhile, perhaps working as a farmhand, to which he reluctantly agrees.

And when Henk arrives, a new side of Helmer is revealed, a more caring, fatherly side. But he’s also occasionally provoked into fits of violent anger, for Henk is selfish and lazy, prone to sleeping in, shirking responsibility and speaking his mind.

Henk is actually a kind of nephew, I think when I close the door to the stairs and see him standing there. He is pulling on his overalls, the ones with the crotch that rides up, the sleeves that are too short and the tear in one armpit. A half-nephew, a could-have-been-nephew, a nephew-in-law.

Their relationship, tender and confrontational by turn, shows Helmer he can connect with people if he so wishes. He doesn’t need to remain passive. He can take control of his own life, steer it in the direction he chooses, and that he can move on without his twin, who has cast such a long shadow over his entire adult life.

I’ve been doing things by halves for so long now. For so long I’ve had just half a body. No more shoulder to shoulder, no more chest to chest, no more taking each other’s presence for granted. Soon I’ll go and do the milking. Tomorrow morning I’ll milk again. And the rest of the week, of course, and next week. But it’s no longer enough. I don’t think I can go on hiding behind the cows and letting things happen. Like an idiot.

An unexpected delight

The Twin is an unexpected delight of a book.

Its slow-moving, gentle narrative, written in pared-back prose, combined with its rural setting, is highly reminiscent of the Irish fiction I love so much.

It presents an old-fashioned world dominated by closed-off men, the kind of men that might have a deep love of nature but can’t communicate with people or express emotion beyond pent-up anger. It’s confronting in places, deeply sorrowful in others, but there are also light-hearted scenes and funny moments, and it ends on a satisfying, hopeful note.

This is my 12th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 10 March 2013 for £5.22. I actually think it was a book club choice but for whatever reason, I didn’t read the book or attend the discussion. Sometimes it does take me an AGE to read books on my TBR – this one only took 8 years!

Australia, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Cees Nooteboom, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Lost Paradise’ by Cees Nooteboom

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 151 pages; 2008. Translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about Cees Nooteboom’s Lost Paradise, which is split into two seemingly unconnected parts that eventually come together in a not particularly convincing way.

Nooteboom is a Dutch writer with a hefty body of work, spanning poetry to travel writing, to his name, as well as a slew of literary awards. Lost Paradise, his 12th novel, was first published in 2004 and translated into English in 2007.

Unusually (for a Dutch writer), the story is largely set in Australia.

A novel in two parts

The first part focuses on two young Brazilian women, (the confusingly named) Alma and Almut, who are obsessed with Aboriginal Australians. They travel to Australia to learn about this ancient culture and to make their dream of visiting the “Aboriginal Sickness Dreaming Place” come true.

Toward the end of their journey, which takes in Adelaide and Alice Springs (among other places), they arrive in Perth, where they take part in an international arts festival event called The Angel Project. (This, apparently, was a real art installation, staged across 13 sites for the Perth International Festival of the Arts in 2000. It has also been held in London and New York.) Here, they are required to dress as angels and remain as still as statues in places dotted around the city.

The second part is about a middle-aged literary critic, Erik Zondag, who travels from Amsterdam to Austria to stay at a remote spa resort on the advice of his girlfriend who wants him to return a changed man. While there he encounters a woman with whom he once spent the night in Perth many years earlier, a woman he still occasionally thinks about, a woman who was, at the time, dressed as an angel.

And hence, you have the unlikely connection between these two seemingly disparate halves of the one book.

An outsider’s view

One element of Lost Paradise that works is the outsider’s view of Australia, the realisation that the outback is inhospitable — and completely alien — if you are unfamiliar with it. Here’s how Alma describes it:

We get out of the vehicle beside a river. The silence is broken by unknown sounds. ‘CROCODILES FREQUENT THIS AREA. KEEP CHILDREN AND DOGS AWAY FROM THE WATER’S EDGE.’ I stare at the gleaming black surface, at the red soil beneath my feet, at the dry eucalyptus leaves, curled into the shapes of letters as if they had been shaken from a tray of type. There is very little traffic on this road, so we are alone in our cloud of dust. The few cars coming towards us can be seen from miles off, like clouds or apparitions.

Similarly, Erik’s sudden awareness of the sheer size of the country is brought vividly to life in this passage:

It had been summer when he arrived in Perth. He had never been cooped up in a plane fror so long. The 18 hours to Sydney had been followed by a flight across a Continent with a population only slightly larger than that of the Netherlands, though it was nearly as big as the United States. Much of the land was empty: a rocky, sunburnt, sand-coloured desert, where the Aborigines had led their unwatched, automomous lives for thousands of years. The others — the sheep ranchers and the wine growers — lived on the periphery.

But this slim volume also explores bigger — and more complex — themes related to why we travel, what we hope to escape from and what we wish to find. There’s an emphasis on literature and art. Angels are a recurring theme — “Angels do not exist and yet they are divided into orders much like the hierarchy in an army” — and there are many nods to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The prose style is sparse and elegant, beautifully translated by Susan Massotty, and reading it feels very much as if you are caught up in a dream. It’s sad and lonely and haunting.

But for all that, there’s no doubting this is an odd book. I came away from it unable to decide whether it might be just an old white man’s self-indulgent fantasy or a slice of understated genius. And weeks after having finished it, I still don’t know…

Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Morocco, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Tommy Wieringa

‘The Death of Murat Idrissi’ by Tommy Wieringa

Fiction – hardcover; Scribe; 102 pages; 2019. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.

This is the kind of slim book that you think won’t take very long to read, but I found Tommy Wieringa’s short, sharp novella, The Death of Murat Idrissi, so shocking in places I could only read it in intermittent bursts. I’ve been mentally processing it ever since.

It was longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, which is how it came to my attention, but it was this review on Dolce Bellezza that made me really want to read it. When I found it in the library I couldn’t resist borrowing it.

A fable for our times, it tells the story of two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree — somewhat reluctantly, it has to be said — to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe. The man’s name is Murat Idrissi and, sadly, he dies en route — hence the title of the book.

The women, abandoned by the men who set up the arrangement, have to figure out what to do with the body. They have next to no money — for food, for fuel, for overnight accommodation — and must make a perilous journey from the Spanish coast to their home in Amsterdam in their (expensive) hire car without alerting the authorities to their predicament.

A compelling read

This is a compelling read, gruesome in places, but Wieringa prevents the narrative from sliding into farce by the clever use of flashbacks, showing how the women got involved in the smuggling operation, detailing the fun aspects of their holiday beforehand and then contrasting this with Murat’s life of poverty. It’s easy to see how the guilt of a Western upbringing may have lead them to this situation.

But there’s an additional “twist” — for want of a better word — because the women, Ilham and Thouraya, are the children of African immigrants themselves and have spent their lives being regarded as Other. Visiting Morocco on holiday was supposed to be a way of discovering their roots, but they’re shocked — perhaps naively so — to find that their usual freedom as young Europeans isn’t available here. There are “rules” for women, and even if they’re European born, they still look like the locals.

This confusion over identity is a key component of the novella and Wieringa asks some important questions about what makes us who we are: is it our skin colour, our country of birth, our belief system, our education, our cultural traditions, our language, our parentage?

She stares out of the window. The trees flash by. It’s the world of her mother, a world she can’t accept. It depresses her, the quick prayers whenever death is mentioned, when there are portents. All those dos and don’ts. The countless fears her mother covers up with invocations. The things you’re not allowed to say, not allowed to think, not allowed to do. Her mother is a farmwoman — she went to the airport on the back of a donkey, as Thouraya puts it; she has a certain control over the new language. She is fairly independent, but there is no use trying to combat her primitive ideas — her reply is always that her daughter is rude, and that rude girls end up badly.

It’s written in prose that mixes long, elegant sentences with short, fragmentary ones, and the descriptions — of the landscapes, of the sights seen on the road — are vivid and beautiful:

They take the new toll road to Tangier; there’s almost no traffic. The sun comes up in a wash of peach-coloured light. They pass greenhouses and plantations, the fields full of sweet, round watermelons, ready for the harvest. The melons rest nakedly beside their furrows, like eggs the earth has pressed out.

Not much is resolved in the ending, which means I’ve been thinking about Ilham and Thouraya ever since I reached the final page. What happened to them when they got back to Amsterdam? What stories have they told themselves about this incident? How have they reconciled it in their minds? And what of Murat’s family back home in Morocco? Do they know he’s dead, or do they think he’s just been too busy to get in touch?

It would make a terrific book club read for that reason — although there’s much more to discuss than that open-ended final chapter.

As you can probably tell, I thought The Death of Murat Idrissi was a really powerful book. Free from judgement and free from sentiment, it’s about the haves and the have nots and the risks people are prepared to take to bridge the gulf between them. It will stay with me for a long time.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Herman Koch, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Koch

Summer House with Swimming Pool

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic; 411 pages; 2014. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Earlier this year I read Herman Koch’s The Dinner and loved its dark twist on family morals. His latest novel, Summer House with Swimming Pool, is just as dark, if not more so. But where The Dinner is based on a meal from hell, Summer House with Swimming Pool  is based on a holiday from hell: there are family arguments, forbidden love affairs and a few cross words between friends. But there’s also a dark undercurrent of menace and misogyny that has deep repercussions for everyone in this sorry saga.

A dodgy doctor

The story is narrated by Dr Marc Schlosser, a General Practitioner, who has a long list of rich and famous clients. Most of them have come to him because they know he’s a soft touch: he doesn’t mind how much they drink and he’ll hand out painkillers and other medication without batting an eyelid.

One of these clients is a rather famous (and obese) theatre actor called Ralph Meier with whom he develops a friendship. The friendship, however, turns out to be a little one-sided: Marc regards him as a lecherous old man who has an eye on his wife, Caroline:

It took a couple of seconds before I realised Ralph was no longer listening to me. He was no longer even looking at me. And, without following his gaze, I knew immediately what he was looking at.
Now something was happening to the gaze itself. To the eyes. As he examined the back of Caroline’s body from head to foot, a film slid down over his eyes. In nature films, you see that sometimes with birds of prey. A raptor that has located, from somewhere far up, high in the air, or from a tree branch, a mouse of some other tasty morsel. That was how Ralph Meier was regarding my wife’s body: as if it was something edible, something that made his mouth water.

When the book opens we know that Ralph is dead and that Marc has been accused of his murder through negligence. As he prepares to face the Board of Medical Examiners, the story rewinds to explain how events have lead to this dire predicament.

From this we learn that the previous summer Ralph had invited Marc and his family — his “tasty morsel” of a wife and their two daughters, Lisa, 11 and Julia, 13 — to stay with him at his “summer house with swimming pool” (hence the name of the novel). Initially, Marc does everything in his power not to stay at Ralph’s — the family camp nearby instead — but doesn’t want to appear rude by turning him down directly.

Eventually, when they do move in —thanks to Caroline’s insistence — they find themselves sharing the house with a cast of rather abhorrent characters, including an odious Hollywood producer called Stanley and his much younger girlfriend, Emmanuelle. They pass their days in the sun, swimming and drinking or visiting the local coastal resort. It all seems rather carefree, but there’s an undercurrent of sexual tension between all the adult couples — Marc finds himself attracted to Ralph’s wife, Judith, for instance — and there’s even a fledgling romance between Ralph’s son and Marc’s teenage daughter.

Eventually that tension spills over into something dark and dangerous, the outfall of which has long-lasting repercussions.

Moral codes

Fans of The Dinner will probably like this book very much. I’m not convinced it’s as accomplished or as well plotted, but it still features some of Koch’s trademarks: vile characters you can’t help but be intrigued by; a sneering, ethically dubious narrator; lots of unexpected “reveals” or twists as the story unfolds; and an examination of moral codes of conduct from almost every conceivable angle.

The pacing is a bit uneven — it took me a long time to get into and I almost abandoned it at the half way mark, but when it takes off it goes like a rocket. I was left breathless, not only by the lightning quick narrative, but by the turn of events, which are so unbelievably shocking I felt like I’d been run over by a truck.

All of the male characters, including the unethical narrator, are self-centred and loathsome. The women, by contrast, are all quite normal, which I expect is a deliberate ploy by the author, seeing as the book explores in various different ways the ideas of sex, sexual attraction and misogyny. Ralph and Stanley are sexually repellent, yet seem to somehow attract the prettiest of women, for instance, and even Marc, who sees himself as a kind of protector of women (or at least he is very protective of his teenage daughter, Julia), is sexually attracted to a woman who is not his wife.

If nothing else, Summer House with Swimming Pool is a story about society’s double standards when it comes to the way women are regarded. But it’s also a dark analysis of modern morals and the consequences of acting on our most wanton desires. It’s not a light read, but it is a strange and compelling one.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Herman Koch, Holland/Netherlands, literary fiction, Setting

‘The Dinner’ by Herman Koch

The-Dinner

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 311 pages; 2012. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.

Appearances can be deceptive and so it is with Herman Koch’s rather dark and delicious novel, The Dinner, which looks like a simple story that unfolds over the course of a family dinner, but which turns out to be so much more than that.

A five-course menu

The book, which is set in Amsterdam, is divided into five parts — Aperitif, Appetiser, Main Course, Dessert, and Digestif — across 46 relatively short chapters. As you might expect from its title and the naming convention of the sections, it’s set in a restaurant — one of those fancy, upmarket nouvelle cuisine type restaurants, where there is more white plate on show than food. Or, as our often witty and slightly sneering narrator puts it when his wife’s appetiser arrives:

The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but there are voids and then there are voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.

Over the course of the meal, we become familiar with the two couples sitting around the table, each of whom has a 15-year-old son. There’s an undeniable tension between them from the start, mainly because the narrator, Paul Lohman, and his wife, Claire, would have much preferred to eat in a more down-to-earth establishment, a local café, but they have already agreed to meet Serge and his wife, Babette, at the fancy restaurant because that’s the kind of place they like to eat at.

Serge, it turns out, is not only pretentious and a bit of a wine snob — “all this I-know-everything-about-wine business irritated the hell out of me” — he’s a renowned (and popular) politician. In fact, he’s the leader of the Opposition in Holland and is expected to be the country’s next Prime Minister.

But there’s more to this initial tension than mild envy: it turns out to be a ferocious — and unspoken — clash between parenting values, because their teenage sons have committed a rather horrendous crime and each couple wants to deal with it in a different way. The subject, however, isn’t one that can readily be discussed over pink champagne and goat’s cheese salad…

An unexpected and compelling read

I have to say that I didn’t quite know what to expect from The Dinner, but it turned out to be a highly original, often uncomfortable and totally compelling read, by far the most unusual book I’ve read in a long while. It’s not quite a black comedy, but I did laugh a lot, mainly at the narrator’s sneering, judgemental tone and witty one-liners. The further I got into the story, however, the more my laughter simply felt wrong, because this is the kind of book that tilts your whole axis and tests your empathy for certain characters to the absolute limit.

It’s a hugely entertaining read, but there’s a lot of social commentary here, some of which is clearly tongue-in-cheek — for example, the whole pretentiousness of Western cuisine and food writing — and most of which is not. I’d like to use the term “hard-hitting” to describe it, but that’s too overused — a cliché if you will —  and it doesn’t quite convey the creeping sense of unease I felt as I got closer and closer to the ending.

The Dinner is a disturbing morality tale of the finest order, the kind of novel that makes you marvel at the writer’s ingenuous plot, filled as it is with unexpected turns and eye-opening revelations, all carefully structured and perfectly paced to keep the reader on tenterhooks throughout — think Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but less showy and more intelligent. It’s bold, daring and shocking, but it’s also bloody good fun.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tim Krabbé

‘The Rider’ by Tim Krabbé

The-Rider

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 148 pages; 2002. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.

I am a keen cyclist, of the leisure and commuting variety, and regularly blog about my exploits at London Cycling Diary. But writing about cycling — what it’s like to be on the back of a bike, how it makes you feel and what you experience along the way — isn’t always easy. Which is why I was intrigued by a book billed as “the best evocation of a cycle race ever written”. Of course, it may be the only novel ever written about a cycle race, but that’s beside the point…

Tim Krabbé is a Dutch journalist and author, probably best known for his 1984 novel-turned-film The Vanishing. But he’s also an accomplished chess player and a road cyclist. The Rider, first published in 1978, has developed a bit of a cult following among cycling aficionados. It’s easy to see why. It’s an astonishingly well written fictional account of what it is like to push yourself to the physical limit all in the name of cycle sport.

Despite the fact I’m not a road cyclist, nor particularly interested in the sport beyond watching highlights of The Tour Down Under or the Tour de France, I found it a completely absorbing read, one that can easily be consumed in a couple of hours. But be warned: it will leave you feeling almost as breathless as the cyclist whose every turn of the pedals we follow across 137 kilometres of punishing terrain.

The story is set on June 26, 1977 in which Tim Krabbé (yes, he uses his real name) competes in his 309th road race, the legendary Tour de Mont Aigoual in France. Despite coming to the sport late (he was 29), Krabbé has not wasted any time in getting himself into the European big league, competing against elite athletes who live to cycle and cycle to live.

The Rider has no chapter breaks but Krabbé uses kilometre markers (or milestones) to break up his text. For instance:

Kilometer 75-78. The fields are a dry yellow and light green. Endless fences lean crookedly across the landscape. To keep something out of the wind? Uphill or down, you can’t sort it out, it drives you crazy. We shift, we stand on the pedals when we get too lazy to shift again. The sky up ahead is black. No one is watching us. More than two hours to go.

These bite-sized chunks not only describe the scenery Krabbé flies past on his bicycle, but explain what Krabbé is thinking — or not thinking — about at the time. (“On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets”, he writes, because cycling in a competitive manner means you only live in the moment: there is no room to think about anything else.)

But sure enough Krabbé’s thoughts turn to how he got into cycling, his training regime, past races and race tactics (being a “wheel sucker” is not one of them). Interestingly, this was a time of limited technology — no bike computers or GPS systems here — so some of what Krabbé writes about is dated (the fact he has to use a stopwatch propped up on a windowsill to measure his lap times is but one example), but it doesn’t take away from the beauty of Krabbé’s story.

But what I loved about this novel is Krabbé’s ability to so perfectly describe that feeling of sheer delight when you are on a saddle and turning the pedals, of how wonderful it feels when you find the right cadence and everything hums along in perfect unison. And while there’s no doubt that much of what he writes about is very intense — the feeling, especially, of watching other cyclists whizz by, leaving you in their wake, and how difficult it is to keep turning the pedals when you haven’t found your “cycling legs” — he captures the camaraderie between cyclists very well and uses black humour to make light of the life and death situations confronted on the road.

Road racing imitates life, the way it would be without the corruptive influence of civilization. When you see an enemy lying on the ground, what’s your first reaction? To help him to his feet. In road racing, you kick him to death.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to be stuck in a peloton, or climbing ever so slowly up a massive mountain, or leading the sprint on a bike, then The Rider will let you experience it. And the best bit? Your heart will race, but you won’t even have to crack a sweat.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harry Mulisch, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Siegfried’ by Harry Mulisch

Siefried 

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 180 pages; 2004. Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent.

An elderly and celebrated Dutch author, Rudolph Herter, goes on a literary tour to Austria, taking his partner, Maria, with him. During a television interview promoting his latest novel, The Invention of Love, he offhandedly mentions that despite all the books and studies about Hitler humankind is no closer to understanding the Fuhrer and why he did what he did. “All those so-called explanations have simply made him more invisible,” says Herter. “Perhaps fiction is the net that he can be caught in.”

Later at a book signing, an elderly couple who survived the war, approach Herter with a story of their own to tell. Herter agrees to hear their tale, thinking that he may be able to use it as the basis for his next novel, which he has already decided should be about Hitler.

Over the course of an afternoon in their room at an old people’s home, the couple, Ullrich and Julia Falk, break the oath they once swore to Hitler and share their terrible secret with a gob-smacked Herter. Their story is so utterly astonishing that Herter soon realises that even the best fiction writers can never properly compete with the truth…

Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, if I say any more about the story it will spoil the plot. But let’s just say that it didn’t turn out to be the dramatic, page-turning tale I had expected.

Sure, Siegfried is a strange and beguiling novel, which deals with a lot of big themes. At its most basic level it pits fiction against fact and plays with the idea that truth is stranger than fiction. But it also attempts to explain the role of literature in helping us to comprehend the evils of the world around us. As a consequence the story gets bogged down in philosophy and navel gazing. Which is a shame, because there is a great story here dying to get out.

For me, personally, I would have loved this book to be more traditionally structured: to have a straightforward narrative that tells the Falk’s shocking tale from their viewpoint. (In fact, I would have taken Herter out of the story altogether. And yes, I realise this would mean the book would be totally different to the book that Harry Mulisch has created here. I rest my case.)

Instead, what we get is three not-very-seamless stories in one: Herter’s, the Falks’ and Eva Braun’s.

The pacing is not straightforward either, with the climax happening about half-way through, leaving the story that follows slightly weaker for it.

Still, if you like big, weighty themes, don’t mind the author philosophising and are fascinated by the love affair between Hitler and Eva Braun you might just find this novel more riveting than I did.

Alexandre Dumas, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Holland/Netherlands, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting

‘The Black Tulip’ by Alexandre Dumas

BlackTulip

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 288 pages; 2004. Translated from the French by Robert Buss.

Set in Holland during the 1670s, this short, cinematic story is essentially a love triangle between two people and a flower – the much sought-after black tulip, tulipa negra.

The opening scenes, bloody and gruesome, put the reader in the thick of the action right at the outset, but this is deceptive: the story is not the ghastly violent one the first chapter may lead you to expect. Instead, it is a gentle, well-plotted romance interwoven with real life events from Dutch history. But on a slightly deeper level it is also a tale about righting wrongs, fighting tyranny and seeking justice.

When Cornelius van Baerle, a humble tulip grower, is (wrongly) thrown into jail it looks like he is going to lose his life — at worst — and lose his chance to grow the perfect specimen of the tulip negra — at best. His tulip-growing rival, the “evil” Isaac Boxtel, sees this as the perfect opportunity to thwart van Baerle’s chance of winning the top horticultural prize.

But then Rosa, the jailor’s beautiful and headstrong daughter, finds a way to help van Baerle achieve his heart’s desire despite the odds and the looming figure of William of Orange.

The Black Tulip might sound a little soppy, but the plot is very good and moves along with great momentum. The writing could do with a little judicious editing here and there, and the ending is wholly predictable, but overall this is a simple tale, relatively well told and a fascinating insight into a time known as “tulipmania”.