Short & sweet (or not): the mini book reviews of week 45


Image Leonie Bos

A fellow doctor once said about Jan Cornelis de Man that he was driven by a ‘mind that sought knowledge’ and with that he aptly summarized the personality of this Zeeland doctor, writes Rinus Spruit in his booklet published last week. Becoming a doctor is not difficult. It contains twelve small essays about Jan Cornelis de Man (1818-1909), who practiced as a physician in Middelburg until an old age, plus some pieces by De Man himself.

De Man lived in a time when little was possible in the medical field, something that did not deter the energetic doctor at all. In 1843 he fought a mysterious epidemic in Arnemuiden (it turned out to be typhus) and later a smallpox epidemic in Middelburg, he measured ancient skulls, he studied mammoth bones and dialects.

Spruit, who was on the longlist for the Libris Literature Prize last year, describes it all beautifully. Anyone who wants to get a copy has to run, and to Zeeland too: it is the gift of the Zeeland Book Week, which lasts until November 11. In an interview, Spruit (77), who made his debut as a writer at the age of 60 after a career as a nurse and taxi driver, claimed that this is his last book. Let’s hope that’s coquetry. (Wilma de Rek)

Rinus Spruit: Becoming a doctor is not difficult – Life reports by Jan Cornelis de Man. Publication of the joint Zeeland bookstores in the context of the 29th Week of the Zeeland Book; free when you spend €15 on Dutch books.

Rinus Spruit - Becoming a doctor is not difficult Image rv
Rinus Spruit – Becoming a doctor is not difficultImage RV

On the Caribbean Isle des Chevaliers the proportions seem clear. The island’s nature was tamed long ago by men who cut down the forests and hollowed out the soil and caused great confusion for the river, writes Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison in her fourth novel Tar (1981), now cleverly translated by Nicolette Hoekmeijer. ‘Exiled from the place where she had always lived, forced into unknown territory, she was no longer able to form her pools and waterfalls and flowed in all directions’, scratching over the forest floor, until finally, ‘dead exhausted, weakened and sad ‘, to form a swamp of thick, black ooze that even the mosquitoes stayed away from.

But the lush hills above are still beautiful and Valerian Street, a retired American candy manufacturer, has the most beautiful house in the area: spacious, light, with ‘modest island accents’, built ‘in the days when plaster was a given’. The master of the house and his much younger, once beautiful wife Margaret spend their days in relative harmony, together with their faithful (and married) servants of color Sydney and Ondine, and temporarily also Jadine, niece of the latter, a model in Paris. Biggest concern: Will Michael, the homeowners’ only son, pay his parents a visit before Christmas?

At this point in the novel, the reader already knows what the residents of the house only discover when Margaret comes screaming from her closet: there is an intruder in the house, a black man who hides during the day and at night, driven by hunger, the pantries. Valerian promptly invites the man, who turns out to be called Son, to the table, after which all underlying tensions, all prejudices come to the surface and any semblance of mutual understanding abruptly disappears.

“He believed he was safe,” is Teer’s first sentence, and in her introduction, Morrison explains: “’Believed’ instead of ‘thought’, to sow doubt, to evoke a sense of unrest.” It is a feeling that she retains for more than three hundred pages in swirling sentences and fierce dialogue. Again and again she forces her readers to wonder: who is a danger to whom here? Who is the threat here?

This is not only about black versus white (or man versus nature), but also and especially about how black people relate to their past and their origins. Two extremes take shape in Jadine and Son, who fall deeply in love. As an orphan, she was helped by Valerian, was able to study at his expense and is determined to make something of it ‘in this world’, according to the rules that apply there. He thinks that her book knowledge is worthless, that she denies her culture, that you can never really trust white people.

Morrison does not take sides, she cultivates understanding for all her characters. The book is Morrison’s first to appear in the chic Perpetua series; an enrichment. (Emilia Menkveld)

Toni Morrison: Tar. Translated from English by Nicolette Hoekmeijer. Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep; 352 pages; €32.50. s 2

Toni Morrison - Teer Beeld Arbeiderspers
Toni Morrison – TarImage Arbeiderspers

The Ghent draftsman and sculptor Koenraad Tinel was 6 years old when the German army invaded Belgium. Koenraad’s father was a member of the Association of Dietsche National Solidarists and collaborated with the occupying forces. “For my father, Hitler was God the Father,” Tinel, now 89, writes in his book Scheisseimer. The family had to leave Flanders, crossed Germany to the border with the Czech Republic and turned back when the Russians arrived.

Tinel relives this apocalyptic journey in 240 dark ink paintings and short texts. He shows the horrors we know from the Second World War and dips his brush deep in black ink to depict soldiers, trains and planes in silhouettes. And he shows the shit bucket after which the book is named and which served as a toilet for the fleeing family.

A first version of Scheißeimer had already been published in 2009, but publisher Oogachtend has now released a revised and monumental edition that does justice to Tinel’s incredible story. A few years ago, another extensive book by Tinel was published, Stories of the Pajottenland, in which he paid tribute to the Flemish countryside in the same sculpted style. What the expressionist Constant Permeke used to do in charcoal, Koenraad Tinel now does in ink. (Joost Pollmann)

Koenraad Tinel: Scheißeimer – Drawn memories of a war. Sincerely; 305 pages; €49.95.

Koenraad Tinel - Scheißeimer Image Oogachtend
Koenraad Tinel – ScheißeimerImage Oogachtend

Part of the monumental oeuvre of Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-1994) had already been made available by Meulenhoff publishers, including the novels The WARF and The short life. His work is now being given a new start at the young, small publisher Kievenaar with a series of previously untranslated novels and novellas. Corpse driver is the third in the series. It is, as Mario Vargas Llosa rightly notes in the book he wrote about the work of this Uruguayan giant, ‘one of Onetti’s best novels’.

As usual, the storylines (about the rise and fall of a brothel and about an adolescent’s relationship with his brother’s widow who has gone insane) are thin and of minor importance. It is about the dreary atmosphere of failure, corruption, loneliness, defeat, decay and meaninglessness. And especially because of the poignant awareness of this sense of life among his characters. A ‘faded provincial enema injector’, that’s what the doctor Díaz Gray calls himself.

Onetti’s fragmented narrative style based on complex inner monologues is recognizable among thousands and is at most vaguely reminiscent of that of his great literary hero William Faulkner. But his sound and fury you will search in vain at Onetti. Like no other writer, he makes us feel existence like an open wound that never heals. (Maarten Steenmeijer)

Juan Carlos Onetti: Corpse Driver. Translated from Spanish by Frans Oosterholt. Kievenaar; 336 pages; €24.

Juan Carlos Onetti - Corpse Driver Image Kievenaar
Juan Carlos Onetti – Corpse driverImage Kievenaar


In classic fantasy, the good characters are almost all white, the heroes are usually male, and the setting is often European and medieval. Not so with the American success author Shannon Chakraborty, who broke through in 2017 with the first book of her Daêvabad trilogy, published in the Netherlands as The bronze city and nominated for a laundry list of awards.

In her work, Chakraborty continually implicitly and explicitly opposes such faded clichés. ‘It is inherent to being a woman that your story is misremembered. Is thrown away. Gets twisted. In the ancient tales, women are the adulterous wives whose betrayal sinks a husband into murderous madness, or they are the long-suffering mothers who give birth to the real heroes,” Chakraborty writes, for example, in the introduction to her new book, The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, through the fictional author who serves this story to the reader. ‘Women are the forgotten wives and nameless daughters. Midwives and maidservants, thieves and fools. Witches. A stimulating anecdote for friends at home, or a warning. There are plenty of slanderous stories like that about Amina al-Sirafi.’

Anyone who wants to read the ‘real’ stories about Sirafi – pirate, mother and convinced Muslim, struggling with drink, class differences, social expectations and her own religion – would do well to give this fine, now translated adventure novel for adults a chance. (George van Hal)

Shannon Chakraborty: The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi. Translated from English by Vertaalzusjes. Library; 480 pages; €25.99.

Shannon Chakraborty - The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi Image Library
Shannon Chakraborty – The Adventures of Amina al-SirafiImage Library

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Short sweet mini book reviews week


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