Safely Home: Short Prose from the Netherlands and Flanders

This issue presents writing by Dutch and Flemish writers exploring the intrusion of the forbidden, the illegal, the unspoken into people’s lives and homes. What fears and taboos reside there? What do people regard as improper? What are the things that can’t be mentioned? In a society that encourages individual expression, characters struggle to cope with their freedoms. How do you deal with yourself and others when it seems as if everything is possible and everything is permitted? And is that in fact the case?

Nearly all of the fourteen prose authors we present here grew up in the prosperous years the Netherlands enjoyed from the mid-1970s until the 2008 financial crisis. Eleven were born between 1962 and 1973, and two in the 1980s. Only Mensje van Keulen, born shortly after the Second World War, experienced the postwar years of reconstruction and recalls truly lean times of hard working and a humble way of living. “I remember the 1950s as gray: icy water, cold beds,” she once said in an interview. The other authors were born in a more progressive era, a time of openness brought about by the protest generation of ’68, with apparent tolerance and ever increasing prosperity. Drugs, prostitution, abortion, euthanasia: if we are to believe the media, the Netherlands, having largely abandoned religion, became the ultimate permissive society.

Despite the fact that both countries nowadays remain high on the list of the world’s wealthiest, many of their inhabitants feel dissatisfied and unsafe. People feel threatened by global developments and changes they contribute largely to migration. They have lost their faith in the political elite. The belief in the “makeable society,” a Dutch term for the progressive and optimistic belief from the 1970s that your country would take care of you and that all problems were manageable—was losing ground.

Over the past fifteen years populism has gradually gained ground, both in the Netherlands and in Flanders, the part of Belgium where Dutch is spoken and where three of the authors in this issue live. This expresses itself in many ways, including hostility toward Muslims, a strict asylum policy, a declining sense of solidarity with the weaker members of society and, in Flanders, with the other half of the country, the French-speaking region of Wallonia.   

When, on top of all this, the credit crisis of 2008 arrived along with the rise of New Economies like China and Brazil (with all the accompanying global power shifts), those feelings of unease increased. Public debate became fiercer in tone. Through social media, people react to each other quickly and vehemently. In two countries where people have a wealth of opportunities, where crime figures are low and the general level of prosperity still high, people feel more anxious than might be expected.

Most of the authors presented here do not concern themselves directly with any of these phenomena, but all of them focus on individuals living in uncertain times. They address subjects that are difficult if not impossible to speak about even in our supposedly free and enlightened countries.

Many characters here are distinguished by a stifling pursuit of perfection. Some fixate on appearance, while others have difficulty living with the flawed people around them. By contrast there are characters who lack all aspiration, who could easily study or work but no longer have any idea why they should, such as the brothers introduced by Thijs de Boer with their Ritalin and ketamine habit: “What we really ought to do, instead of forgetting things every night and then making things up for each other, is to finish our studies and look for a job. Build a life. But it’s not that we’re running away from that. It’s more that we can’t find a good reason to go back to it.”

Most of the characters do have a plan, however. The question then is what to do about things that don’t fit in with the path mapped out. In Elke Geurts’s novel De weg naar zee (The Way to the Sea, 2013), a perfectionist gives birth to a child with Down’s syndrome. The reader joins the mother on her neurotic quest for a perfect life and the cruel fantasies it brings with it. She is ready to try anything to make her daughter into a “normal child.” “Being different” is also the theme developed by Annelies Verbeke in the fifteen stories in her collection Veronderstellingen (Assumptions, 2012), from which we have included the story “The Bearded Lady.”

Several stories feature far from tranquil domestic settings. In the story “Ten Floors” (2013), Ton Rozeman’s porn addict, convinced a girl in his building is the star of the film he compulsively watches online, assaults her. To judge by this story, the closer people get, the greater the danger.

The characters in the novel Van dode mannen win je niet (Dead Man Always Win, 2013), by Walter van den Berg know as well as anyone what it means to be in an unsafe situation. Van den Berg takes us into the mind of a violent stepfather attempting to justify himself to the son of his ex, one of the women he has abused. He is a complex, multifaceted man, and the fact that he still dotes on his former stepson makes the tragedy all the more harrowing.

Manon Uphoff’s story “Fucked Up” (2013) is narrated by a writer named Ninon. Her sister has taken her thirty-seven-year-old son back into her home and insists she is taking “wonderful, excellent” care of him. In reality nothing is left of the man but a shadow. Ninon struggles to come to terms with the emotions and tensions surrounding this tragedy, and investigates how they feed into her writing. In a compelling, fragmented style, Uphoff draws the reader into both a family drama and a poetic quest.

Away from home, danger also lurks nearby, as in Mensje van Keulen’s story “Sand,” in which a man flees his nagging wife for the serenity of the nearby beach, only to be attacked by another man.

It is striking that of the thirteen authors selected, eleven regularly practice the art of the short story, some in addition to writing novels, others as their main form. None of the stories and novel extracts here feature an omniscient narrator. Often the writers get right inside the minds of their characters. The stories take place in the present day. However much our compatriots and the media insist that we can shape our own lives, everyday events turn out time and again to be beyond our control. Sometimes things “just happen,” as in Maartje Wortel’s story “Canoes,” whose terminally ill main character shrugs, “My wife walked out on me two years ago. It sounds simple and it was: she walked out, simple as that.” In Esther Gerritsen's successful novel Dorst (Craving, to be published in 2014 by World Editions in a translation by Michele Hutchison), the mother in the story is terminally ill with cancer, and informs her estranged daughter of the fact when she meets her by chance on the street. The author is not afraid of putting her finger on the most painful places, whether they have to do with alcoholism, obesity, or loveless sex. 

In our two small, densely populated countries, individuals who lead totally disparate lives can sometimes barely stand each other, despite our reputation for openness and tolerance. In an effort to achieve perfection, or at least to hold on to what we’ve got, we have become fearful and petty—and quite often irrational. There are countless examples. Despite evidence that harsher punishments don’t work, judges are being called on to impose more severe sentences. We see fierce arguments in the media about people who differ from the “average,” from women in burkas to transgender people, and last year even a documentary about menopause provoked indignant reactions. It seems we have many more taboos than we thought.

Several of the writers in this collection venture into areas that are hard to talk about. Yves Petry has gone further than any of them. In the philosophical novel De maagd Marino (The Virgin Marino) a man cuts off his lover’s penis, kills him and then, in the months that follow, eats the body: all on his late partner’s own request. He is the deceased narrator of the story: a weary literature professor who lost his faith in the world. Yves Petry doesn’t reconstruct the actual murder case, but searches in his characters’ states of mind for an explanation of what motivates people to do such things.

In an interview he says: “I think that’s what literature should do, express thoughts that are socially unacceptable, or at least very hard to put into words: strange twists, fluctuations in our brain, inconsistent, unjustifiable, impossible to combine into a coherent picture, but they’re there all the same.”

Loneliness is also central to the stories by Peter Terrin and Sanneke van Hassel. Terrin introduces us to an introverted man, unwillingly divorced, who imagines a life with a woman who works in a call center, whom he manages to track down and then visits while she is in a coma. Van Hassel gives a voice to a solitary widower enamored of an elusive woman.

 The language used in most of the prose in this issue is rarely formal and sometimes fairly colloquial. The stories or extracts are often stripped down and rhythmical, and the power of suggestion is hugely important. Are we dealing here with heirs to New Objectivity in Dutch literature? Writers of short stories frequently refer to American, “dirty realistic” influences such as Raymond Carver, but there are exceptions to this succinct style. In “The Ohio Hat,” Anton Valens describes the endless days of a home care worker and his maddening elderly charge in a richly descriptive, slightly archaic style. Valens dedicated two story collections to his experiences in the home care sector.

Arnon Grunberg, born in 1971, might be described as the standard bearer for his generation, not least because of his productivity and the consistent quality of his novels, essays, and stories. For years Grunberg has been writing with sardonic pleasure about the limitations to our efforts to shape our world, with an unrivaled ability to reveal the taboos and sensitivities that exist in the Netherlands today. In his novel Huid en haar (Tooth and Nail, 2010), a university Economics lecturer, detects bubbles not only in the economy but also in love and relationships The free market has gained a monopoly on power in all fields.

The topics addressed here could be relentlessly grim, but all these authors pair darkness or tragedy with a keen sense of humor and an expert use of exaggeration. By slightly magnifying their characters traits and faults (Geurts, Verbeke) or by describing in exhaustive detail their behavior (Valens) or the things they say (Van Keulen), these authors ensure that their protagonists continually surprise and astonish, rather than making the reader completely identify with them. Humor often makes stories more attractive and easier to digest, but, perhaps more important, brings a sense of perspective, creating distance and avoiding melodrama. With lightness and irony, the authors look at taboos from all sides and broach what we would prefer not to talk about. This is prose for alert readers who can handle a rough ride.

Sanneke van Hassel
Victor Schiferli