Place: The Netherlands

Translation Tuesday: Excerpts from “His Name is David” by Jan Vantoortelboom

All I want to do is milk the cows and work the land. So why do I need to know the capitals of Europe, or who Napoleon was?

Newly translated into English, Jan Vantoortelboom’s His Name is David, a Dutch-language bestseller, is a tale of forbidden love set in World War I Flanders. Consisting of vignettes, the narrative unfolds as memories of a young Belgian school teacher as he faces a firing squad for desertion. Presented here are just two scenes from the classroom, showing how he tries to transform the minds of his students, “the boys of Year Six.”

‘But sir, why do we have to cram all these things into our heads?’

Roger interrupted my lesson about the capital cities of Europe. His way of constantly questioning everything drove me up the wall sometimes.

‘Neither my father nor mother have ever been further than Ypres or Poperinge, and on Sundays, my mother goes straight home to milk the cows after Mass and my father only ever gets as far as the pub for a pint.’

‘Quite a distance, if he has to crawl home,’ Jef said.

We ignored the remark.

‘Well, Roger. Maybe you will travel further than your parents one day, and see the whole wide world,’ I said.

‘Who, me? Why? Whaffor?’

‘To look at churches and castles in other countries, perhaps. To see how people live there. Or to observe the wildlife.’

I thought of my childhood. Of the books Father brought us. Of the cupboard full of skulls and bones in my room. Of my brother.

‘But I won’t have the cash for that. And anyway, I don’t give a damn about those things.’

Judging by the way his eyebrows twitched, he knew he should be watching his words.

‘Honest, sir. All I want to do is milk the cows and work the land. So why do I need to know the capitals of Europe, or who Napoleon was? And on Sundays, I want to go drinking, like Dad!’

I needed all my creativity to come up with an answer that would have a motivational effect on the obstinate lout.

‘Well, Roger. Imagine that one day, you take over your father’s farm …’

He interrupted me enthusiastically.

‘Oh, I will, sir! Cos luckily, I’m the oldest!’ He laughed, sneering at Jef and Walter, who both had elder brothers.

‘All right,’ I continued. ‘And now imagine you do, as you say, also take over that genial habit of your father’s, namely drinking on Sundays.’

‘Yes, naturally. Sometimes, I’m already allowed…’

‘That’s enough, Roger,’ I cut him short. ‘As you know, however, no one on this planet is immortal. I’m sorry I have to say so, but one day, your parents will die.’

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from Joost de Vries’s “A Room of My Own”

My brother put on his big, fake, photo grin, while one of Kissinger’s assistants smiled professionally and said, firmly, 'Please, just one picture'

Henry Kissinger had a flabby mouth he was fond of using to make droll comments, like calling power the ultimate aphrodisiac, an aphorism he repeated so many times people started to believe it, encouraged by his own tendency to pose for the paparazzi at dinners and cocktail parties with a platinum-blond socialite or an aspiring starlet on his arm. Looking at those photos now, you see a square tuxedo with a man stuffed into it. A bulging face, no neck to speak of, tiny eyes behind enormous glasses, classic wavy hair. And a Barbarella babe next to him in a delirious dress, her teeth bared by a smile so strained it looks like she’s putting her face through an aerobics workout.

‘Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.’ He was referring to those women, but didn’t think his theory through enough to realise it applied to him too. In the run-up to the presidential election of 1968 he’d called Richard Nixon ‘unfit to be president’, but when President Nixon called him three weeks after winning to make him National Security Advisor, he didn’t hesitate for a moment. He too felt his knees quiver and his heart pound when faced with the true power of the White House.

‘Will you be my National Security Advisor?’

‘Oh, I will, Richard. Yes, I will.’

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On Harry Mulisch: Rediscovering Heaven

Three years ago today, the great Harry Mulisch died.

On 30th October 2010, the great Dutch author Harry Mulisch passed away—after Reve and Hermans, the last of the ‘great three’ of Dutch postwar literature to leave us. The first time I read Mulisch—it was his great novel The Discovery of Heaven—must have been in late 2010; I remember reading the biographical note in the front of the book, in which he was alive and well, only to have this new-found friend suddenly snatched away from me by the remorseless up-to-dateness of Wikipedia. Wishful memory records that I had in fact started reading The Discovery of Heaven the very day Mulisch died. READ MORE…