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Literature on Location: Part I [BTBA 2016]

As with past years, every week one of the Best Translated Book Award judges will be posting their thoughts and observations on some of the books that they’re reading for this year’s award. Stacey Knecht agreed to kick things off today with this post.

Yes, I live in the Netherlands. No, I don’t live in Amsterdam. (Believe it or not, there’s an entire country attached to that city.) My home is Zwolle, an elegant old Hanseatic town situated in what is often referred to, especially by the more urbanized Dutch, as “the Provinces.” Our house is right around the corner from Zwolle’s central station, with trains running to nearly every major European city on the map. One hour to Amsterdam, three to Brussels, five to Paris, seven to Berlin, twelve to Prague or Vienna, sixteen to Budapest . . . you can even travel to Athens, if you’ve got a few days to spare. At night I lie in bed listening to the faint rumble of trains en route to places that, long ago, when I was growing up on the other side of the Atlantic, seemed farther away than the moon.

For the next few months, I’ll be reading through the many hundreds of contenders for the BTBA 2016. And since I live in such close proximity to so much of Europe, why not read these books, whenever possible, in the countries in which they were written? Literature on location. Every few months, I’ll report my findings on this blog, starting right here, in my own backyard, with the prizewinning Dutch novel Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda, first published in 2010 and now available to English readers.

Despite its immense popularity here in the Netherlands, and perhaps wary of the hype, I hadn’t read Bonita Avenue until now, in the English translation by Jonathan Reeder. I was pleasantly surprised at how credibly the novel has assumed its English form. The book has been compared to various works by Jonathan Franzen; I can see why, but while Franzen tugs at my heartstrings, Bonita Avenue is darker. I found myself putting it aside now and again, delaying what I dreaded was yet to come.

Bonita Avenue tells of Siem Sigerius, a brilliant professor and ambitious politician, whose interactions with his “family of prevaricators” (a son charged with murder, a pornstar stepdaughter and her psychotic boyfriend) lead to his downfall—and theirs. The story moves back and forth through time and place, from “provincial” Enschede (or as one of Buwalda’s characters describes it, “that godforsaken hick town in Twente”), to Brussels, Belgium, to the eponymous Bonita Avenue, in California, the only place where the family has ever been happy. The town of Enschede, where Sigerius lives and teaches, is the site of an actual event that plays an essential role in the book: on May 13, 2000, an explosion in a fireworks depot demolished the surrounding neighborhood of Roombeek, leaving 23 dead, nearly 1,000 wounded, and 1,250 homeless. I remember sitting in front of the television just after it happened, staring at the charred expanse where a neighborhood used to be (and thinking it was only a matter of time before someone incorporated those images into a novel).

Buwalda makes the disaster—and its repurcussions—tangible, while at the same time giving it the space to evolve into a chilling metaphor: things fall apart, but we don’t always see it coming, even if the threat has been there all along. When Siem Sigerius first hears of the catastrophe, in a news broadcast on TV in a Shanghai hotel room, he doesn’t realize what he’s seeing, nor does he make any attempt to find out: “There’s an item about an accident in some foreign country. He sees a European-looking residential neighborhood with fireworks exploding above the houses in broad daylight. The crackle and claps on the TV get louder, the picture becomes choppy—his eyes fall shut.” Siem’s stepdaughter Joni considers the possibility that the fireworks disaster might actually have been the cause of the family’s breakdown: “A physical disaster like a fireworks accident is a maternity ward where new disasters are born.” When her boyfriend Aaron, who lives in Roombeek but happened to be abroad at the time of the explosion, finally returns home, he discovers that his house, at least on the outside, is still intact:

Glass. He’d heard endless accounts of the shock wave, an invisible Hun that swept relentlessly through the streets of Roombeek without skipping a single address—and still he was awestruck. The entire ground floor, which felt small after two weeks chez Sigerius, was littered with splinters, shards, and rubble. On the table, on the armchair seat cushions, on every uncovered centimeter of his bookshelves, between the buttons on the remote control, on the windowsills of opposing windows, one of which had been blown out, in the kitchen sink, on the cabinets—there was glass everywhere.

The rest of the neighborhood, everything familiar to him, is gone, literally blown to bits. And in the end Aaron, too, along with the disturbing constellation of his family-in-law, will crumble and fall.

Recently on Internet, a reviewer wondered why the Dutch were always writing about dysfunctional families. I wouldn’t say that this is a particularly Dutch preoccupation, though I’d be curious to hear the views of other readers. I do think that the staidness of cities and towns like Enschede are the perfect setting for literary explosion, emotional or otherwise. One of my favorite contemporary Dutch novels, The Happy Hunting Grounds by Nanne Tepper (translated by Sam Garrett), is set in East Groningen and depicts a brother and sister gutwrenchingly in love against the backdrop of dusty, desolate potato fields—not the Netherlands most tourists flock to see. From the book jacket: “Swift’s Waterland soaks into McEwan’s Cement Garden in this shocking and intense debut. Incest, madness & romance in the peat.” Suspicious as I am of blurb texts, this one hits the mark. The author, described at the time as “a born writer who will be one of the most important authors of his generation,” committed suicide in 2012, aged 50, as if to underscore the futility of trying to make peace with this life.

And not only in the Netherlands.



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