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.’

We recognized him from some thirty metres, maybe more. He was walking towards us from the Louvre. A small, elderly man with a walking stick, flanked by three much younger men who were obviously security. On our right, the Seine. Left, the Jardin des Tuileries, the Orangerie, the rue de Rivoli with its palatial hotels and Armani stores. Behind us the place de la Concorde with Napoleon’s enormous Obelisk and further in that direction the Grand Palais, the Champs-Élysées, and the Arc de Triomphe, which even Hitler marched around rather than through, out of respect for the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We were surrounded by echoes of the past.

It had to be one of the most touristy spots in France, close to the museum’s inverted glass pyramid, one hundred and fifty metres away from the undocumented Liberians and Senegalese trying to flog Eiffel Tower key rings to indifferent tourists. If you had two hours to kill in Paris, this was the place to go and that was why we were here—one and a half hours before we were due to report at the Gare du Nord—but the tourists rarely left the main route through the former palace gardens, so you could still stroll peacefully along paths of fine gravel of the kind that is undoubtedly very good for playing boules.

Look, could it possibly, surely not, is that, could that really be, we said to each other, but there was no doubt in our minds. It had been some four decades since he’d held a cabinet post, and more than not being able to remember the last time we’d seen him on TV, we couldn’t remember ever having seen him on TV apart from archival footage.

He was walking slowly and we too slowed our pace. We wanted to delay the moment, the moment our paths would cross and we’d be able to look him in the eye. Ten metres, six metres, three metres and then, to my surprise, my brother stepped over to him.

‘Excuse me, Mr Kissinger, could we please take a picture?’ Immediately adding, ‘I am such a big fan of your book, Diplomacy.’

The security men held back for a moment. ‘Ah well, ah well,’ mumbled the former Secretary of State, who didn’t even reach my brother’s shoulder. He seemed to be amused. My brother put on his big, fake, photo grin, while one of Kissinger’s assistants smiled professionally and said, firmly, ‘Please, just one picture.’

Their faces were next to each other on the screen of my iPhone. I knew Hugo’s all too well, but Kissinger’s was a feast for the eyes. His skin was leathery and crumpled and angular, like an old leather travelling bag. Gravity had taken hold of his eyelids and not let go; they were watery and drooping. The same for his lower lip. Once so strong, his face had collapsed. It was past it, but his eyes were clear and icy blue and burning through the lenses of the square glasses that rested on his potato nose like twin television sets.

In that moment I thought about all the things you could know about him. In the thirties he’d fled Germany with his family to escape the Nazis, he’d become a brilliant academic at Harvard, joined Nixon’s government in the late sixties, successfully pursued détente with China and the Soviet Union, let the Vietnam War escalate, squandering tens of thousands of lives, so he could de-escalate it later on his own terms and win a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. The peace negotiations had been held here in Paris. He was history personified—war and peace. This old man supported fascist regimes in Latin America, probably had Salvador Allende murdered, delayed informing the president about the Yom Kippur war until it was too late for mediation, deliberately left thousands to starve to death in Bangladesh. And now he was here.

Click, said my camera.

‘Thank you, thank you,’ said Kissinger. ‘Good day, good day.’

‘Great meeting you, sir,’ we said.

We didn’t walk on, but watched him walk away with his support staff. They left the gardens a little further along, heading out to the road where a car was undoubtedly waiting. We didn’t say anything. I could imagine that he’d done some shopping, that he had his regular addresses on the rue Saint-Honoré, the place Vendôme.

‘Wow. Henry Kissinger,’ Hugo said at last.

‘Yes, smashing,’ I said.



We looked at each other.

‘He should have been chucked in prison years ago.’

‘On bread and water, the bastard.’

We laughed, of course.

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer


This translation appears by courtesy of Das Mag and will appear in full in the special English-language edition out April 12.

Joost de Vries (1983) is a Dutch novelist and essayist. His latest novel The Republic will be translated into twelve languages. The English translation will be published in 2016 by Other Press, New York. He won the Gouden Boekenuil in 2014, the Flemish prize for best book of the year. He is also an editor at De Groene Amsterdammer

David Colmer (1960) is an Australian translator of Dutch novels and poetry. He translates the work of Dimitri Verhulst, Gerbrand Bakker and others. His translation of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin was awarded with the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2014.

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