I’m looking forward to the launch of The Dutch Riveter on Wednesday night, and as last week was Dutch Book Week 2021, I thought I’d sit down to read a book a day (albeit short ones!) The short story collections, published as part of the Verzet (Resist) series by Strangers Press, were ideal. They average 30 pages in length with some containing only one or two stories, others containing up to five. The authors are all making their debuts in English AND so are the translators! The translators were mentored by established translators. The result? A stimulating and surprising series of stories, presented beautifully in individual chapbooks, complete with those all important french flaps (😍) .
Let’s take a closer look at chapbooks 1-4.
1. Reconstruction – Karin Amatmoekrim (translated by Sarah Timmer Harvey) 28 pages / 5 stories The author is a Surinamese immigrant and her stories focus on the notion of home. These, however, are not nostalgic wistful lookbacks to her homeland, but rather examine the notion of home in the adopted country. The collection is bookended with tales of high-rise blocks. The building itself is the focus of the first story – a block of concrete flats, a piece of soulless architecture, that develops a soul of its own as people move in and out of its flats. But because it is concrete, it begins to deteriorate as soon as it is built. The final story sees a grown woman return to the street of her childhood, now that the high-rises she lived in have been demolished “leaving strange holes in the sky”. This is not a nostalgic visit as her memories of the time there are not good. It was a rough area and finally her mother decided to move out. It seems though that the narrator’s happiness remained elusive. It’s not so easy to reconstruct a life as to transform a street.
2. Thank You For Being With Us – Thomas Heerma van Voss (translated by Moshe Gilula) 28 pages / 2 stories The Massage Parlour takes us to the red light district and the observations of a student whose flats overlooks the entrance to the massage parlour in question. I’m not going to spend time on that as it was the second story that sold the series to me at the series launch event last autumn. My instincts guided me well. It is tremendous.! Thank You for Being with Us describes the estranged relationship between father and adult son. Koen has written a bestselling book entitled “Family, The Root of All …”, described as “a settling of the score with his father” and has invited his father to participate in a televised discussion. His father, who hasn’t seen his son for years, agrees. The story, written from the viewpoint of the father, explains the reasons for his absence and his son’s resulting resentment. It takes us into the television studio and through the broadcast, in which he is interrogated – not quite aggressively but robustly – about his behaviour. He stays cool in the line of fire, accepting his faults but refusing to apologise abjectly. And while elements of his behaviour are less than ideal, you can’t condemn him entirely. I tell you that reading this story about an essentially private story becoming public in the week of THAT interview was a most timely experience.
3. Bergje – Bregje Hofstede (translated by Alice Tetley-Paul) 28 pages / 1 story Back to childhood places once more, this time to a favourite holiday destination, Colfosco in the Dolomites. The narrator first looks back at her early memories of travelling there with her family, or rather the anticipation of travelling there. “It’s a Dutch winter: dark, wet, grey, cold; chapped faces, taut mouths, busy parents, cabin fever. You know that … you’ll get on a train that will transport you to a dazzling week; sun glistening on snow, hot chocolate with whipped cream in toasty mountain huts.” There follows the tale of two trips made in adulthood, the first with her boyfriend – the boy – as she calls him, a second trip made solo. The objective, to revisit and climb to the summit of a beloved mountain, the Sass Songher. How much is fiction, given that this is an autobiographical work? Who knows, what cannot be disputed is the appreciation of and fine descriptions of the landscape in general and the mountain in particular. And yet, finally achieving the summit is the catalyst for a surprising reevaluation of the narrator’s life. “I always thought I had to live an exciting and remarkable life, that I had to seek out a summit so as to touch the intensity that electrifies me and keeps me going for weeks. I thought the daily grind (the repetition, the ordinary, the unremarkable) caused layers of dust. Now I think: No, it’s haste that keeps me from seeking the sparkle. The haste to get to the top.”
4. The Tourist Butcher – Jamal Ouariachi (translated by Scott Emblen-Jarrett 2 stories / 32 pages. And now for something completely different. Horror. Vegans, vegetarians and squeamish meat-eaters need read no further. In Memories Wrapped in Tin Foil the narrator is about to fry up the slice of lightly-cooked chestnut mushroom he has found in the fridge. His biologist flatmate stops him, explaining that she has smuggled this slice of human brain out of the lab as he once expressed a curiosity to see it. (He has a fascination with the notion of consciousness.) What follows is an account of his time spent with that specimen. He knows it has to be discarded, but the act turns into a real moral dilemma. The Tourist Butcher is a veritable nightmare. Two holidaymakers travel to an unnamed city, intent on enjoying the sights, the sounds, the food, the drink, the weather. (As you do.) But following a spat with a taxi driver, they are advised to beware of the tourist butcher – a serial killer who allegedly kills tourists and serves up the choicest cuts to other tourists in a restaurant! Of course, this is just an urban legend invented to put tourists off visiting because the inhabitants of the city are hostile to those they see as foreign invaders … isn’t it? You need to appreciate the macabre to enjoy these stories. I do – in small doses. So these tales in short story form hit the spot just right.
Notes on chapbooks 5-8 to follow.