Scott Rollins’ Choice: Boeli van Leeuwen and Rob Verschuren
Every month, a translator of Dutch into English gives literary tips by answering two questions: which translated book by a Flemish or Dutch author should everyone read? And, which book absolutely deserves an English translation? To get publishers excited, an excerpt has already been translated. This time you will read the choice of Scott Rollins, who has been a cultural entrepreneur for nearly fifty years working as a translator, editor, writer, publisher and music maker. Some of his translations include a volume of Selected Poems by Bernlef, non-fiction by Jan Brokken on the music of the Netherlands Antilles and early work by Leon de Winter.
Must-read: ‘The Sign of Jonah’ by Boeli van Leeuwen
Boeli van Leeuwen (1922-2007) is one of the major 20th-century authors from the Dutch Caribbean. As his critics in the Netherlands have written, he is truly a South American novelist writing in Dutch. He received Dutch Literary Fund’s Oeuvre Award in 2007 for his entire body just prior to his death. The late Andre Lefevere’s translation deftly negotiates the roller coaster ride of Van Leeuwen’s baroque narrative that fuses dream, interior monologue, lithely snaking through high and low registers of language from the Bible to the street. Kirkus Reviews wrote: Seamlessly mixing metafiction, magical realism, and literary allusion, van Leeuwen describes the moral and metaphysical challenges that his ageing narrator faces as he seeks some assurances of immortality. A deceptively small book packed with big thoughts and big questions, all for the most part refreshingly accessible.
In his daily wanderings around Willemstad, an old man encounters the underbelly of society: whores, drunks, bums, thieves, and drop-outs. One night he inadvertently saves the life of a South American millionaire, Juan Carlos. To reciprocate, Juan Carlos introduces him to his mistress Laila and invites him to accompany them on his private ship, the Cachelote and cruise to his private estate, where he is the master of a vast refuge for the insane and the idealistic. On it, the Church, Indians, and former and latter-day conquistadors live in enforced harmony. As the old man is increasingly drawn toward the temptress Laila and finds his own life in jeopardy, Juan Carlos – his alter ego – comes to his rescue and repays his debt. Back in Curaçao, with money sent from his publisher, he organizes a blowout for the poor, a drunken enactment of the Last Supper. In the aftermath, there is catharsis and resolution.
Boeli van Leeuwen, The Sign of Jonah, translated by Andre Lefevere, The Permanent Press, 1995, 203 pages
To be translated: ‘Tyfoon’ by Rob Verschuren
Rob Verschuren left his native Netherlands in the mid-1980s before ultimately setting in Vietnam in 2009. The four novels and book of stories he has published since his literary debut in 2016 mark him out to be an example of what Salman Rushdie has called ‘translated men’, expat writers whose geographical, cultural, and linguistic interactions lead to a rich cross-pollination between identities and perspectives.
His first novel Tyfoon (Typhoon) is set in a fictitious land that greatly resembles Vietnam. It is the story of Duc, Vinh and Mai. When the civil war breaks out, Vinh joins the rebels ultimately returning with the victorious army to become Chairman of the local People’s Committee. Duc stays behind and marries Mai. He makes his living gathering highly lucrative and coveted eggs from bird’s nests in caves on islands off the coast and immerses himself in various indigenous beliefs of his people.
Besides being a moving tale of an extraordinary lifelong triangular relationship, it is also a chronicle of a changing society, in which traditional values must change for better or for worse. Prominent Dutch author Cees Nooteboom writes: “A compelling novel with the allure of a fairy tale. You won’t easily find characters like these in a Dutch book.”
Rob Verschuren, Tyfoon, In de Knipscheer 2018, 170 pages
Excerpt from ‘Tyfoon’, translated by Scott Rollins
…Duc found a new love, just as passionate as his lifelong love for the birds. He was fascinated by the way little Phuong gave names to the things around her. Everybody said she was slow at learning to talk. She kept chattering stubbornly away in her imaginary language, even though Mai did her utmost to teach her words. Duc heard something in her twittering resembling the language of the birds, which he had studied his entire life to no avail. He suspected that in both cases strange and important things could be learned, that would only be revealed when you stopped searching for meaning. As a young man he had been convinced the birds would speak to him one day, just like they spoke to the gods. Later, he had concluded that the words used by The Buffalo, were meant symbolically. Zaj probably came closer to the truth: that birds sang to avoid collisions. This was more in line with the scientific position that the various sounds were social signals. A primitive form of communication with a functional purpose. But that explanation did not satisfy him. The song of hundreds of birds in the stone clock tower of the cave was too majestic, too moving. And it was never the same. Sometimes it sounded raw and chaotic and other times like a song of jubilation. Why look for a meaning?
It had struck him that human words too seldom have meaning. That most conversations were not carried out to convey anything, but as a pastime or ritual. Out of a fear of silence.
Maybe the birds sang for their pleasure, like people whistling a tune. Ram had once told him about the Hmong’s whistle language used by hunters to communicate with each other in the jungle.
“It’s our real language,” said Ram. “Older than our spoken language. Anyone mastering the whistle language can express just as much as with words. Do you know what else it is used for?” Ram grinned. “For love. The young men walk through the village in the evening whistling poems. When a girl responds from the darkness, they begin their courtship.”
He had often longed to go and visit Ram’s village and listen to the whistling of the lovers in the mysterious jungle night.
Why should the language of birds or a child not be poetry? Or have some other function, which science could not fathom? How would the world look if there was a language in which you could say exactly what you thought? Or a language with only words for beauty and joy? One question begat another. He could continue to brood about it his entire life without finding an answer. That is why he had stopped searching for meaning. In the sounds of birds and humans he listened to rhythm and harmony, like in the rolling of the surf and the beating of the rain on the corrugated iron roof.