Triple Dutch

New York publishing becomes New Amsterdam with a wave of artful novels from the Netherlands

It is not unheard of for the literary community to lionize a particular editor who has turned scores of unknown authors into household names. But rare is the day that an American reader thanks the stars for the heroic work of an organization like the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature. Yet it is this group that can claim credit for underwriting the wave of new Dutch translations that are now reaching our shores. From the sprawling, historical brio of Arthur Japin's Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi to the noirish bite of Tim Krabbe's The Cave, Americans can now sample the novelists who are literary celebrities in their native country. This summer, H.M. van den Brink and Oscar van den Boogaard, as well as éminence grise Harry Mulisch, continue this trend with three strong novels as disparate as they are profound.

Mulisch, who began publishing in America in the mid-Eighties, has paved the way for his younger countrymen. His 700-page magnum opus, Discovery of Heaven, explored the tension between Dutch collusion and resistance during the Nazi era, a historical shadow that still looms today. His most recent novel, not yet available in the States, features a man eerily sympathetic to the writings of Adolf Hitler. So it's not a surprise that his latest novel to appear here, The Procedure (translated by Paul Vincent) also addresses pressing cultural and philosophical issues.

Weaving between the present day and the far past, The Procedure (Viking) is a fascinating meditation on the enigma of creation. Composed of 12 so-called "documents," The Procedure evokes the quest of two men to trump God by creating life. In the opening sections Mulisch describes the horrific tale of Rabbi Judah Loew of 16th-century Prague, whose attempts to fabricate a protective golem out of clay accidentally unleash a murderous monster. The novel then skips forward to the present day, adopting the voice of Victor Werker, a microbiologist conducting DNA research on Egyptian mummies. Werker has discovered "eobiont," an elemental independent life form derived from inorganic matter. At the same time, Werker has also fathered a stillborn daughter, whom he addresses in lengthy diatribes sent to his wife.

Using Werker's dazzling, fretful confession as his novel's axis, Mulisch explores a writer's complicity in the hubris of invention. In the hands of a lesser author this cautionary tale might seem turgid and self-important, but Mulisch moves his story forward effortlessly, complicating our allegiance to Werker. We want to improve on this earth, Mulisch suggests, but we don't want to reap the punishment when our plans and designs go awry. While it's an age-old truth, Mulisch lends this notion freshness, depth, and urgency.

 

H.M. van den Brink addresses history as well in On the Water (Grove Press), his slim, poetic novel about two rowers training for the Olympics as Europe readies itself for World War II. The novel opens in 1939 when Anton, the narrator, patrols Amsterdam in the wake of the German occupation. Once the center of his days, the boathouse has fallen into disrepair; the canals reek of rot. The novel (which is also translated by Paul Vincent) then cycles back to recreate Anton's love affair with rowing. When he spied his first boat as a young boy, his father, a meek bureaucrat, hoisted his son to his shoulders for a better look: "[A]s long as I could I stared after the rowers [and] also the trail they were pulling with them under the bridge, a trail of lines and whirlpools, where the oars had hit the water hard, like footprints."

As a teenager, Anton immerses himself in the sport, apprenticing with Doktor Schneiderhahn, an iconoclastic German who drives his team to excel. Van den Brink depicts their workouts in language that is both exacting and sumptuous. He poignantly captures the confidence of an athlete in season. As his muscles harden, Anton canvasses the city with a sense of pride. "I looked at the dresses, the hats, the summer coats of the people, and saw that they had no bodies under their clothes. No bodies like mine, that could do anything."

Although he earns the respect of his coach, Anton cannot crack the cool façade of his boatman, a handsome upper-class boy named David. Over the course of the novel, Anton's devotion to the sport flows into his desire for David. While his infatuation becomes cloying, van den Brink saves his novel from sentimentality with a restrained evocation of the greater loss that stalks this crew's glorious last season--a loss that would go on to drown Europe.

 

While Mulisch and van den Brink relate stories with grander historical resonance, Oscar van den Boogaard's American debut, Love's Death (Farrar Straus & Giroux) places him firmly in the camp of domestic miniaturists like Susan Minot and Alice Elliot Dark. Reeling from the death of his daughter Vera ten years after the fact, Klein, one of van de Boogaard's typically sad, aimless characters, poses a painful question to his wife: "Oda, what would it be like if we could rewind the past?" The answer, as this short, powerful novel reveals, is not quite as simple as one might hope.

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