Novels and Narratives: The stories you have to tell

Fiction from Flanders and the Netherlands

© Stephan Vanfleteren
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Frankfurter Buchmesse
Guest of Honour 2016
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Novels and Narratives: The stories you have to tell

The stories you have to tell: contemporary literature from Flanders and the Netherlands

by Stefan Wieczorek

This year is the second time, following 1993, that Flanders and the Netherlands have featured as joint Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Their last appearance triggered a real boom in Dutch-language literature, not only in German-speaking countries but also beyond, and Dutch authors have retained their popularity ever since. 2016 will break another record, with about 250 titles in the categories literature, books for children and young adults, non-fiction and poetry now translated into German.

The best-known names at the beginning of this success story were Harry Mulisch (1927-2010) and Cees Nooteboom (b. 1933), some of whose works are now classics, including Harry Mulisch’s novel “Die Entdeckung des Himmels” and Cees Nooteboom’s novella “Die folgende Geschichte”, followed a few years later by his novel set in Berlin “Allerseelen”. However, the enduring popularity of Dutch-language literature was not founded on individual titles, but on a broadly anchored generation of authors whose new works often appeared almost as quickly in German. Apart from those two figureheads Mulisch and Nooteboom, they included names like Adriaan van Dis (b. 1946), Anna Enquist (b. 1945), Maarten 't Hart (b. 1944), A. F. Th. van der Heijden (b. 1951), Margriet de Moor (b. 1941), Connie Palmen (b. 1955) and Leon de Winter (b. 1954).

For all the differences between these authors, an idea of what constitutes Dutch literature grew and cemented: here was a generation of writers who above all had a story to tell, certainly clever and profound but never artificial, and always faithful to the story; novels strongly rooted in the present, perhaps even in everyday life, with a diversity of realistic narrative techniques, gripping and yet entertaining. This constellation emerged during a situation in the early 1990s when German-language literature was being urged to relate more to the world around it and return to storytelling – something literature from the Netherlands was evidently good at doing. In some cases, the various strains of realism encountered in Dutch-language literature went so far as to dissolve the boundaries between fiction and autobiography, generating very personal, intimate works. For German readers, however, this literature from next door also brought a confrontation with their own national past and the horrors of the Third Reich – not least through the diaries of Anne Frank, but also novels like Tessa de Loos’ “Die Zwillinge”.

The above-mentioned authors have been joined in recent years by younger writers who are regularly published in German, such as Gerbrand Bakker (b. 1962), Arnon Grünberg (b. 1971), Erwin Mortier (b. 1965), Dimitri Verhulst (b. 1972) and Tommy Wieringa (b. 1969). Dutch-language literature has never been an extension of the beach holiday by narrative means – and this has led to a phenomenon that is perhaps the most astounding factor in its popularity: there are no familiar and possibly much-loved Dutch clichés peddled here. Instead, what we find is a different, urban, contemporary literature that addresses social developments and talks about the lives of individuals in a changing reality.

Complex family novels are evidently the perfect formula for this purpose. They are currently experiencing a renaissance, partly because they offer a chance to highlight dissimilar themes. In “Wir und Ich” Saskia de Coster (b. 1976) waspishly observes life and its deformations in a leafy Belgian neighbourhood at the close of the 20th century, and in particular the effort to establish personal autonomy in this environment. In his topical book “Die Unerwünschten”, a sequel to “Die Beschissenheit der Dinge”, Dimitri Verhulst devotes two drastic narratives to growing up in a home and the breakdown of a family. With “Taxi Curaçao”, which begins in the Dutch Antilles, Stefan Brijs (b. 1969) constructs a father-and-son tale over several generations. Kris van Steenberge (b. 1963) created a storm with his debut novel “Verlangen”, a family story set in provincial Belgium against the backcloth of the First World War.

Looking back, it is striking that Flemish authors have only begun appearing in German bookshops more frequently in the last few years. That might have something to do with the fact that some leading contemporary Flemish authors foster styles that do not match the cemented image of Dutch-language literature. In that respect, the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2016 can be expected to break away from stereotypes and differentiate. The ‘literary heavyweights’ who are finally to (re)appear in German include Yves Petry (b. 1967). His novel “In Paradisum” centres on a case of consensual cannibalism involving two men; Petry has created a literary masterpiece here that is extremely intense and psychologically precise. Peter Verhelst (b. 1962), one of the most experimental storytellers, founded “Die Kunst des Verunglückens” on a violent incident he experienced himself, a dramatic car crash, testing the scope for appropriate literary narrative in response to an event that so deforms perceptions of reality. The third Flemish author among these masters of style who are well known at home is Peter Terrin (b. 1968), whose short novel “Monte Carlo” opens with an accident on the racing track.

And what about the younger generation? In Flanders and the Netherlands debate is currently raging about which of these young novelists are setting the tone for the early 21st century. Quite a few are now being published in German for the first time: Mano Bouzamour (b. 1991), Daan Heerma van Voss (b. 1986), Thomas Heerma van Voss (b. 1990), Wytske Versteegs (b. 1983), Joost de Vries (b. 1983) and Niña Weijers (b. 1987). One question for this generation is about their take on 20th-century history, especially the Second World War, and how their way of writing differs from that of previous generations. Joost de Vries engages in a virtuoso game with fiction and reality: in his novel “Die Republik”, a young scholar tries to claim the intellectual legacy of his mentor, an expert in “Hitler Studies”, and becomes entangled in the snares of an academic world that is often absurd. Next year “Der letzte Krieg” by Daan Heerma van Voss will appear in German: here the issue of how to write about the Holocaust and the Third Reich is posed in very radical terms when the central figure, an author who has been suffering from writer’s block for years, begins forging documents of the period.

Younger authors also tackle present-day family relations, especially the precarious nature of family bonds: Niña Weijers in her coming-of-age novel “Die Konsequenzen” and Thomas Heerma van Voss in “Stern”, where a teacher on early retirement takes stock of his life and his relationship with his adopted son from Korea. In Wytske Versteeg’s “Boy”, a mother sets out on a quest to discover what caused the death of her adopted son, found lifeless on a beach after a school trip.

Probably there is no other minor language available on the German market in such breadth. That is partly because so many German-language publishers, literary agents and translators monitor the new titles appearing in Dutch. So will the Frankfurt Book Fair 2016 above all be a delightful opportunity to meet up with an old friend with whom we never really lost touch? Back in the 1990s, Dutch-language literature was also about a different ethos, perhaps best expressed in A. F. Th. van der Heijden’s anarchically unruly cycle of novels “Die zahnlose Zeit”. After the turn of the millennium, the consensus-based Dutch “polder model” proposed new ideas about how to live and work in the 21st century, from organising work time to urban design and architecture. We need only remember the Dutch Pavilion at Expo 2000. Belgium’s capital Brussels has long been synonymous with the European Union. These social changes and visions have also set their stamp on Dutch-language literature insofar as it shadows everyday practice, for example in the form of new blueprints for being and living, new models for relationships, new approaches to growing older, and in biographies – not so much as explicit themes, but more as a sociocultural undercurrent.

But literature in Flanders and the Netherlands is not just a lab for experimental visions about how people can live together. It was quick to confront the conflicts and disillusionments of the early 21st century: the murders of the right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn, and of the film-maker Theo van Gogh, who expressed critical views of Islam and who is the subject of Leon de Winter’s novel “Ein gutes Herz”. In Belgium, the shared governance of the Walloon, Flemish and German-speaking communities is a constant experiment that keeps calling for renegotiation and occasionally breaks down. The failed integration of many young migrants has ignited into violence and aggression, a radicalisation depicted by the Moroccan-Flemish author Fikry El Azzouzi (b. 1978) in “Wir da draußen”. In “Samir, genannt Sam”, a coming-of-age novel, the Morroccan-Dutch writer Mano Bouzamour (b. 1991) explores the difficulties of growing up between two cultures in Amsterdam. Kader Abdolah (b. 1954), an exiled Iranian who writes in Dutch, speaks in his novella “Die Krähe” about trying to gain a foothold in the Netherlands. Migration is the issue of the polyphonic, labyrinthine novel “Das schönste Mädchen von Genua” by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, who emigrated to Genoa himself and tells the tales of African refugees stranded in the port. Refugee destinies likewise play a central part in Tommy Wieringa’s parable “Dies sind die Namen”.

Cartography

In the first part of this essay, we looked back at 1993, when Flanders and the Netherlands first featured as joint Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, at the ensuing boom in Dutch-language literature, and at the trends and the authors behind them. Part 2 briefly describes the themes and focuses on more recent publications. Abstracts for these titles (and other publications) can be found under “New Releases” at http://www.buchmesse.de/en/guestofhonour/
Some of the German titles are still only working titles or simple translations from the Dutch. Besides, in addition to the themes and focuses outlined here, there is a great deal more to discover. A list of new publications from Dutch can be accessed via the following link: https://letterenfonds.secure.force.com/vertalingendatabase/search

New works by prominent contemporary Dutch-language authors – nearly all the authors who established a permanent place for themselves in the German-speaking countries after the Book Fair in 1993 have new titles coming out this year; an early novel by Harry Mulisch, who died in 2010, will be appearing in a new translation:
  • Adriaan van Dis: Das verborgene Leben meiner Mutter. Droemer Knaur. German translation Marlene Müller-Haas
  • Anna Enquist: Streichquartett. Luchterhand. German translation Hanni Ehlers
  • A. F. Th. van der Heijden: Das Biest. Suhrkamp. German translation Helga van Beuningen
  • Maarten 't Hart: Magdalena. Piper. German translation Gregor Seferens
  • Margriet de Moor: Schlaflose Nacht. Hanser. German translation Helga van Beuningen
  • Harry Mulisch: Schwarzes Licht. Klaus Wagenbach. German translation Gregor Seferens
  • Cees Nooteboom: Turbulenzen. Klaus Wagenbach. German translation Helga van Beuningen
  • Cees Nooteboom: 533 Tage. Berichte von der Insel. Suhrkamp. German translation Helga van Beuningen
  • Connie Palmen: Du sagst es. Diogenes. German translation Hanni Ehlers
  • Leon de Winter: Geronimo. Diogenes. German translation Hanni Ehlers

Anthologies and themed issues of literarary magazines will offer the chance to explore many authors this year in the form of compact sample texts; the anthologies “Amsterdam” and “Wär mein Klavier doch ein Pferd” include 20th-century classics, and all the authors in “Wär mein Klavier doch ein Pferd” are women. The other publications are dedicated to contemporary literature.
  • Amsterdam. Eine Stadt in Geschichten. DTV. Edited by Victor Schiferli
  • Bojen & Leuchtfeuer. Neue Texte aus Flandern und den Niederlanden. Themed issue of Die Horen. Wallstein. Edited by Stefan Wieczorek
  • Wär mein Klavier doch ein Pferd. Erzählungen aus den Niederlanden. Edition fünf. Edited by Doris Hermanns
  • Willkommen zurück. Dossier der Literaturzeitschrift Ostragehege. March 2016. Compiled and translated by Stefan Wieczorek

Family novels as focal settings for social and cultural change are currently booming in Dutch-language literature:
  • Stefan Brijs: Taxi Curaçao. BTB. German translation Stefanie Schäfer
  • Diane Broeckhoven: Was ich noch weiß. C.H. Beck. German translation Isabel Hessel
  • Saskia de Coster: Wir und ich. Tropen. German translation Isabel Hessel
  • Bram Dehouck: Der Psychopath. BTB. German translation Stefanie Schäfer
  • Esther Gerritsen: Mutters letzte Worte. Berlin Verlag. German translation Meike Blatnik
  • Arnon Grünberg: Muttermale. German translation Rainer Kersten
  • Maarten 't Hart: Magdalena. Piper. German translation Gregor Seferens
  • Thomas Heerma van Voss: Stern. Schöffling und Co. German translation Ulrich Faure
  • Murat Isik: Das Licht im Land meines Vaters. Arche. German translation Gregor Seferens
  • Olga Majeau: Brosamen für den blauen Vogel. BTB. German translation Andreas Ecke
  • Griet Op de Beeck: Komm her und lass dich küssen. BTB. German translation Isabel Hessel
  • Jaap Robben: Birk. Ars Vivendi. German translation Birgit Erdmann
  • Kris Van Steenberge: Verlangen. Klett-Cotta. German translation Waltraud Hüsmert
  • Dimitri Verhulst: Die Unerwünschten. Luchterhand. German translation Rainer Kersten
  • Wytske Versteeg: Boy. Klaus Wagenbach. German translation Christiane Burkhardt

Novels from every generation of writers are asking questions about ageing and death. The spectrum ranges from life in old age to assisted dying.
  • Hendrik Groen: Eierlikörtage. Das Geheimnis des Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Jahre. Piper/Pendo. German translation N.N.
  • Maarten Inghels and F. Starik: Das Einsame Begräbnis. Geschichten und Gedichte zu vergessenen Leben. German translation Stefan Wieczorek
  • Sander Kollaard: Stadium IV. A1 Verlag. German translation Gerd Busse
  • Dimitri Verhulst: Der Bibliothekar, der lieber dement war als zu Hause bei seiner Frau. BTB. German translation Reiner Kersten
  • Thomas Heerma van Voss: Stern. Schöffling und Co. German translation Ulrich Faure

Migrants and refugees: authors with migrant origins are increasingly taking up the pen to write in Dutch, but other novels reflect the theme too, describing the flight of refugees or the challenge of integration. Several works of non-fiction also discuss the history, opportunities and risks of immigration, e.g. Leo Lucassen and Jan Lucassen in “Winnaars en verliezers” or Paul Scheffer in “Immigrant nations”.
  • Kader Abdolah: Die Krähe. Arche. German translation Christiane Kuby 
  • Fikry El Azzouzi: Wir da draußen. Dumont. German translation Ilja Braun
  • Mano Bouzamour: Samir, genannt Sam. Residenz Verlag. German translation Bettina Bach
  • Ernest van der Kwast: Der Eismacher. BTB. German translation Andreas Ecke
  • Ernest van der Kwast: Mama Tandoori. BTB. German translation N.N.
  • Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer: Das schönste Mädchen von Genua. Aufbau. German translation Rainer Kersten
  • Tommy Wieringa: Dies sind die Namen. Hanser. German translation Bettina Bach

Extreme experiences have always been the stuff of literature. Violence in one form or another and its treatment in literature are the theme in these novels by, among others, Jeroen Brouwers (sexual abuse in a boys’ boarding school), Yves Petry (cannibalism) and Peter Verhelst (car crash).
  • Jeroen Brouwers: Das Holz. Weissbooks. German translation Christiane Kuby
  • Jan Lauwereyns: Monkey Business. Ein Laboraffe erzählt. Axel Dielmann-Verlag. German translation Helga van Beuningen
  • Myrthe van der Meer: Tiefdruckgebiet. Heyne. German translation Barbara Heller
  • Gustaav Peek: Göttin, Held. DVA. German translation Nathalie Lemmens
  • Yves Petry: In Paradisum. Luftschacht. German translation Gregor Seferens
  • Peter Terrin: Monte Carlo. Berlin Verlag. German translation Christiane Kuby and Herbert Post
  • Peter Verhelst: Die Kunst des Verunglückens. Secession. German translation Stefan Wieczorek
  • Miek Zwamborn: Wir sehen uns am Ende der Welt. Nagel & Kimche. German translation Bettina Bach

Creative artists: Connie Palmen portrays the powerful relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in “Jij zegt het”, giving Hughes a voice; but apart from these historical examples, artistic creativity is one of the great themes of narrative literature.
  • Anna Enquist: Streichquartett. Luchterhand. German translation Hanni Ehlers
  • Herman Koch: Sehr geehrter Herr M. Kiepenheuer und Witsch. German translation Christiane Kuby and Herbert Post
  • Connie Palmen: Du sagst es. Diogenes. German translation Hanni Ehlers
  • Niña Weijers: Die Konsequenzen. Suhrkamp. German translation Helga van Beuningen
  • Joost Zwagerman: Duell. Weidle. German translation Gregor Seferens

First World War and Second World War: Stefan Hertman’s “War and Turpentine”, a major novel about the First World War, appeared back in 2013s; it is above all the Flemish authors who take on the “Great War” as as topic. In the Netherlands, the Second World War and the Occupation are rooted in the collective memory.
  • Stefan Brijs: Post für Mrs. Bromley. BTB. German translation Marlene Müller-Haas
  • Kris Van Steenberge: Verlangen. Klett-Cotta. German translation Waltraud Hüsmert
  • Ernest Claes: Die Mutter und die drei Soldaten / Die Zwölf. F.W. Cordier. German translation Ingrid and Paul Wolters
  • Adriaan van Dis: Das verborgene Leben meiner Mutter. Droemer Knaur. German translation Marlene Müller-Haas
  • Kees van Beijnum: Die Zerbrechlichkeit der Welt. Bertelsmann. German translation Hanni Ehlers
  • Jan Brokken: Die Vergeltung. Rhoon 1944. Kiepenheuer und Witsch. German translation Helga van Beuningen
  • Paul Baeten Gronda: Straus Park. Luchterhand. German translation Marlene Müller-Haas
  • Dola de Jong: Das Feld in der Fremde. Kunstmann. German translation Anna Carstens
  • Otto de Kat: Die längste Nacht. Schöffling & Co. German translation Andreas Ecke
  • Ariëlla Kornmehl: Alles, was wir wissen konnten. Hoffmann und Campe. German translation Marlene Müller-Haas
  • Daan Heerma van Voss: Der letzte Krieg. DTV. German translation Gregor Seferens
  • Joost de Vries: Die Republik. Heyne. German translation Martina den Hertog-Vogt

(Post-)Colonial literature from the Netherlands and Belgium was brought to our attention, at the latest, by David Van Reybrouck’s great study “Congo”. It illustrates how the colonial past is now being investigated in Flanders and the Netherlands:
  • Maria Dermoût: Erst gestern noch. DTV. German translation Bettina Bach
  • Maria Dermoût: Die zehntausend Dinge. DTV. German translation Bettina Bach
  • Anne-Gine Goemans: Honolulu King. Insel. German translation N.N.
  • Hella S. Haasse: Der schwarze See. Lilienfeld Verlag. German translation Gregor Seferens
  • Hella S. Haasse: Das indonesische Geheimnis. German translation Birgit Erdmann and Andrea Kluitmann
  • Eric Schneider: Zurück nach Java. Insel. German translation Waltraud Hüsmert

Apart from a few exceptions, our western neighbours are still terra incognita for us when it comes to detective stories, but that could now change, especially when it comes to literary thrillers, like those by the duo Britta Köhler and Rodney Bolt, who publish under the pseudonym Britta Bolt:
  • Britta Bolt: Das Haus der verlorenen Seelen. Hoffmann und Campe. German translation Heike Schlatterer
  • Britta Bolt: Das Büro der einsamen Toten. Hoffmann und Campe. German translation Kathleen Mallett and Heike Schlatterer
  • Lieneke Dijkzeul: In der Stille der Tod. DTV. German translation Christiane Burkhardt
  • Arjen Lubach: Der fünfte Brief. BTB. German translation Marlene Müller-Haas
  • Nausicaa Marbe: Schmiergeld. Eichborn. German translation N.N.
  • Anita Terpstra: Anders. German translation Jörn Pinnow
  • Simone van der Vlugt: Dir wird nichts geschehen. German translation Janine Malz

A decent number of 20th-century classics will be published in 2016. One focus is on (post-)colonial literature, but a few publishing houses will take this opportunity to add more titles by authors already in their catalogue (including Boon, Hermans, Wolkers). Two women, Ida Simons and Dola de Jong, are only just being rediscovered in the Netherlands. The late 19th century is represented by Marcellus Emants.
J. J. Voskuil’s seven-volume cult novel “Het bureau” is in a sense already a (modern) classic.
  • Louis Paul Boon: Mieke Maaikes obszöne Jugend. Alexander Verlag. German translation Ilja Braun
  • Maria Dermoût: Erst gestern noch. DTV. German translation Bettina Bach
  • Maria Dermoût: Die zehntausend Dinge. German translation Bettina Bach
  • Marcellus Emants: Ein posthumes Bekenntnis. Manesse. German translation Gregor Seferens.
  • Hella S. Haasse: Der schwarze See. Lilienfeld Verlag. German translation Gregor Seferens
  • Hella S. Haasse: Das indonesische Geheimnis. German translation Birgit Erdmann and Andrea Kluitmann
  • Willem Frederik Hermans: Unter Professoren. Aufbau. German translation Barbara Heller and Helga van Beuningen
  • Dola de Jong: Das Feld in der Fremde. Kunstmann. German translation Anna Carstens
  • Frans Kellendonk: Buchstabe und Geist. Eine Spukgeschichte. Lilienfeld. German translation Rainer Kersten
  • Harry Mulisch: Schwarzes Licht. Klaus Wagenbach. German translation Gregor Seferens
  • Nescio: Der Schnorrer und andere Erzählungen. Suhrkamp. German translation Christiane Kuby and Herbert Post
  • Ida Simons: Vor Mitternacht. Luchterhand. German translation Marlene Müller-Haas
  • J. J. Voskuil: Das Büro. 7 volumes. Verbrecher Verlag. German translation Gert Busse
  • Jan Wolkers: Amerikanisch kurz. Alexander Verlag. German translation Rosemarie Still


Stefan Wieczorek
Is a translator, a doctor of literature and a cultural mediator. To mark this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair he will (inter alia) be editing a Dutch-Flemish anthology called “Bojen & Leuchtfeuer” for the literary journal “Die Horen”, while his dossier of new texts from Flanders and the Netherlands entitled “Willkommen zurück” will appear in the literary journal “Ostragehege” for the Leipzig Book Fair.