Jan Vantoortelboom: that name may not immediately ring a bell for many readers. However, he immediately stood out with his debut The sunken boy from 2011, about a boy in a West Flemish village who searches for his grandfather’s past. Master Mitraillette (2014), about a young teacher who ends up in front of the firing squad during the First World War, was named Book of the Month on the Dutch talk show The world goes on. But his subsequent novels made fewer ripples. For Vantoortelboom, this prize represents a major breakthrough.
“I want to thank my family,” the writer responded. ‘They have sometimes been bothered by the fact that I wrote in such a focused manner. Sometimes the children were not picked up from school. I have been on intensively for two years Mauk worked. First in my head. After my father’s death, I built a writing hut with my father-in-law and I also did some carpentry during that time Mauk built in my head. Afterwards I put it on paper in an elongated fragrance.’
‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is not.’ That sentence flows like an undercurrent Mauk, a compelling novel about an old man who sees his life passing by on his deathbed. Mauk grew up the child of a man who “couldn’t control his pain,” an intelligent, imaginative schoolmaster, “but a volcano.” Impossible to control or restrain.” A man who found an outlet for his inner turmoil in physical violence against his wife and son.
The only thing in which Mauk and his father find each other is their fascination with Karl May’s books and the Wild West, in which the free cowboy enjoyed ‘pure freedom’. But even that shared interest is not without fear, because every time Mauk receives a new Karl May book, he is quizzed. The red scars on the back of his hand are testament to what happens when he doesn’t remember all the details.
Gradually, an older brother – Henri – emerges in Mauk’s imagination – stronger, tougher, more decisive and more violent than him, a real hero who can protect him and his mother. Henri, the free cowboy, symbolizes Mauk’s urge for resistance – pain is inevitable, suffering is not. Mauk increasingly escapes the grim reality into a fantasy world, in which he imagines his family as pioneers who travel west across the prairie in a covered wagon, braving heat, storm, cold and the threat of hostile Comanches. When domestic violence comes to a head and he loses his mother, he flees completely into his imaginary world and increasingly relies on Henri.
Not that Vantoortelboom tells this straightforwardly. The power of the book lies in its fragmentation and suggestiveness: the boundary between reality and delusion is porous and as a reader you do not always know what is true and what is not. It is a book like a fever dream, wrote De Volkskrant. You are alternately presented with fragments of Mauk’s childhood, of scenes in which he is forced to go hunting with Gaston, a shadowy friend of Mauk’s father, of his fantasy world in the Wild West and his life as an adult. After a long absence from the village, he moves into the remote house of his uncle Konrad, who also died under suspicious circumstances.
The house is his refuge and shelter. He finds the security he used to find with his mother. The villagers treat him with a mixture of fear and compassion. Only gradually do you find out where that fear comes from. Vantoortelboom’s book is an ingenious structure, with well-chosen images and associations, written sparingly, suggestively and poetically. It is a book about how to use imagination as a survival strategy, but also about how to be the prisoner of your imagination.
‘A lot happens between the lines in this refined novel, with the events revealing themselves in the rich visual language that is at least as captivating as the story itself,’ said the jury of the Boekenbon. ‘Vantoortelboom effortlessly puts the boundary between fiction and reality under tension, without losing sight of the psychological depth of his characters and the progression of the story. The fact that the writer endures this exercise with verve is perhaps mainly due to his impeccable style and his exceptional talent for composition.’
‘Mauk does not contain too many words and yet you are captivated by the richness of the language,” said jury chairman Ingrid van Engelshoven at the award ceremony. ‘The jury has chosen the book that is an ode to the power of literature, written in a flawless style and beautifully composed.’
Vantoortelboom takes 50,000 euros in prize money with him to Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, where he has lived for years. He wants to spend that money on his children. ‘They study, so that costs money. And I promised one of my children a little car.” The other nominees were, in addition to Roxane van Iperen, Saskia de Coster Almost realdebutant Tiemen Hiemstra with W.and Richard Osinga with Mint.