The Success of Dutch Literature Abroad

A Review of The Boy by Wietske Versteeg

/ by Edgar Tijhuis

Flanders and the Netherlands were the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. With the slogan “Dit is wat we delen” (“This is what we share”), they presented not just novels, nonfiction and poetry, but also new forms that have emerged from the book arts, creative industries and other artistic fields. Meanwhile, the number of English translations has been growing for some time. It seems that Dutch literature, in general, is getting increasingly popular abroad, with translations in dozens of other languages. We will look at a number of recent translations that came out, and one young author in particular, Wytske Versteeg, and novel, The Boy, that recently appeared in English.


The Longlist of Translated Books

The popularity of Dutch literature abroad has not been limited to new novels. A telling example is the translation of Gerard Reve’s post war classic, De Avonden (The Evenings). It was first published in 1947 and describes the aimless days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The Second World War has just ended, but the country was in crisis, the streets were dark and there was little to do. Another one is the first English translation of Paul van Ostaijen’s 1921 modernist classic, Bezette Stad (Occupied City), stimulated by the centenary of the First World War.


An absolute best-seller among the new books has been The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old. A hilarious story of a man living in a retirement home in Amsterdam, trying to resist the seemingly absolute rule of an institution over the individual. Translated into over twenty languages and followed by As Long As There Is Life - The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 Years, that chronicles the latest adventures of “The Old But Not Dead Club” in the retirement home. An interesting detail with the diaries is that the author is officially unknown. After almost a year, journalists figured out the diary had in fact been written by a librarian from Amsterdam.


Another unexpected best-seller was The Melting (Het Smelt), the debut novel of the Belgian writer, Lize Spit (1988). Spit writes scripts, prose, and poetry. The book is about a young woman who returns to her childhood village to take revenge on its inhabitants. After its publication and instant success in Belgium, in January this year, translation rights were sold in eight countries, as well as film rights.


A very unique book was published in English two months ago. Joost Zwagerman (1963-2015), the most influential writer of his generation, gathered the very best short stories by Dutch and Flemish writers in 2005 in a monumental anthology of almost 1600 pages. He tried to give the short story, never very popular in the Netherlands, and called “literature’s stepchild,” the attention it deserved.


Finally, besides literature, other successful books have been translated lately. One of them is The Triumph of Typography, about the history of modern typography and the development and influence of new media on it. And Depart, about a new photographer who is always on the move and shares his work on social media. It was produced by the Sizoo brothers, the three illustrious brothers Bastiaan (18 years old) and Willem & Bob (both 16).


Wietske Versteeg’s The Boy

Among the most successful young writers abroad is Wytske Versteeg (born 1983). In the spring of 2012, she made a successful debut with De Wezenlozen (Weightless), which was nominated for the Opzij Literature Prize 2013 and long-listed for the AKO Literature Prize, one of the two most important prizes for new books in the Netherlands. In 2014, her second novel, Boy, was awarded the BNG Literature Prize, a prize for authors under 40 years old who did not yet win a major literary prize, while the book was also longlisted for the prestigious Libris Literature Prize. Boy has been translated in German, Italian, Turkish and Danish. Last month, the English translation this novel, The Boy, was published by Hoperoad Publishers.


“The Boy” refers to Kito, the adopted son of the main character, his mother, and her husband Mark. The mother, a psychiatrist, always had difficulty empathizing with Kito. The story is told mainly from her perspective, going back to the time before Kito, their only child, came into their lives. She dreamt of having a baby and, when it did not arrive, “it left a hole inside me, giving a name to what I’d always known, that there was something dark and corrupted and hostile in me.” During Kito’s life, she struggles with the reactions from others to their child: “I always saw the same expression move across their faces; a brief moment of shock and then a conscious decision to find it perfectly normal.”


From page one, it is obvious what has happened, when the police visit the mother and tell her they found the body. A body that had surfaced in the water, after Kito had been missing for some time. But only now the quest of the mother really starts. She longs for answers as to what happened exactly and why, and this changes her relationship with Kito. “Never before have you been his mother as much as you are now, when he is no longer there, and you are blowing life back into his lost body. You have never been so close.”


Bit by bit, some light is shed on Kito’s life, which had largely been obscure for his mother. “Yes he was bullied. But it shamed me to admit it when the police asked the question. And one day I found him in front of the mirror with lipstick on and I asked myself, I wonder who that is, the real Kito, and I wonder if we want to get to know that person as much as we said we did.”


She starts to hang around Kito’s school, trying to get in touch with former classmates. One day, she speaks with Timothy, their leader, and compels him to go home with her. When she questions him, he points at the drama teacher, Hannah, who allegedly had a role in Kito’s death. But Hannah is gone. She left for Bulgaria after Kito died. The mother manages to hunt down her address and disguises as a volunteer who wants to stay and work with her. She leaves for Bulgaria and tells herself “I am here to kill her.” She stays with Hannah in her primitive house and works the land. But the longer she stays there, “the more difficult it becomes to see her as an abstraction I must destroy.”


Unconsciously, the tension is rising, as the two women become entangled in a claustrophobic relationship. The mother needs to keep her real identity hidden, but needs to respond to Hannah enough to let her talk about her own life, so she will ultimately disclose the secret of Kito’s death. Hannah takes the mother on a journey through her past as a teacher, failing to control Kito’s class, and failing to stop the ruthless bullying. And sharing her doubts about Kito’s parents. “Every time I looked at him, I wondered how a child could have got so very lost. But perhaps this was what his parents wanted, what they saw as a proper upbringing: this kind of affected stifling politeness...there was no one waiting for him in the afternoons, that his parents didn’t come until around dinnertime.”


The mother stays with Hannah as the summer passes, and through autumn the cold winter arrives. And slowly, she comes closer to the truth about Kito’s death, until Hannah finally tells her the whole story...


The Boy deals with several themes in a fascinating and original way. It intensely portrays the human failure, with regard to suffering inflicted because of social hierarchies. With this book, Versteeg has written one of the most remarkable novels by young writers from Holland and Flanders, that has been translated in the last couple of years.

Edgar Tijhuis

studied Political Science, Law and American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He received his Phd from Leiden University. His dissertation was published by Wolf Legal Publishers and is standard reading on transnational crime and art crime. Edgar Tijhuis is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana and regularly publishes in a range of journals.