Exploring Holland from abroad: reading Dutch novels

One of my favorite ways to get to know more about foreign countries is to read novels written by local authors. Now that you find yourself confined to home, you need distraction and you have plenty of time, why not take this opportunity to read some Dutch novels? In this first blog about Dutch literature, let me introduce you to 7 contemporary Dutch authors. Their work has been translated in English and you should be able to order these novels in your local bookstore.

A short side note on Dutch novels

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if you can’t name a single Dutch writer. There are several reasons for Dutch fiction remaining rather obscure. First of all there is the language problem: there aren’t that many Dutch speaking people in this world. The estimated number of native Dutch speakers is about 25 million worldwide. Though Dutch publishers do their best to get Dutch novels translated, the huge majority of Dutch literature never gets translated.

Another reason is that Dutch novels often focus on specific culturally determined themes. These may not be appealing to readers from other countries. There is a lot of frustration going on in Dutch fiction! Frustration about conservative protestant religion and culture and about sexuality.

In the future I may write a blog about the grand names of Dutch literature, the novels that Dutch high school students have to read. For now I have picked 7 books by contemporary Dutch authors. All of these novels were translated in English. I hope these novels will help you understand Dutch culture and society a little better before you visit. Be aware though: it’s fiction!

1) The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

Most Dutch people may be atheist or agnostic, a small minority is strictly religious. In The Discomfort of Evening Marieke Lucas Rijneveld takes you on a journey into this culture. It is set in the countryside of Zeeland province in the southwest of the Netherlands. The novel deals with a Reformed family that has to deal with the untimely loss of a boy.

The story is told by one of the boy’s sisters, Jas, who feels guilty about his death. The thing is that she had prayed to god that he would take her brother rather than her pet rabbit. As the family is incapable to talk about the lost boy, the young girl and her siblings have to deal with the grief and guilt by themselves. As a reader you may feel uncomfortable reading what shape this processing of grief takes. Let’s say that the discomfort in the title of book is there for a reason.

Important themes in this book are death, sexuality and (extreme) religion. Themes that are central to a disproportional part of Dutch literature by the way. So however young Marieke Lucas Rijneveld may be, this writer fits into a longer literary tradition. This novel is on the 2020 International Man Booker Prize shortlist.

2) The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

Another novel set in a rural area, this time the low lands just north of Amsterdam. The main character of this poetic novel is a 55 year old farmer who has always done what other people expected of him. Yet now, finally, he is starting to stand up for himself. His first action: taking possession of the only heated bedroom in the house. And moving his old, dominant, sick dad to the attic room. He looks back on his life and starts to redefine his future.

There is not a lot of action going on in this book. The strong point of this novel is the way Bakker writes about life on the farm. He has a poetic way of writing about the landscapes and the animals. And knowing the area (around Monnickendam, easy to visit from Amsterdam!) I would say the author has done a wonderful job describing it. Read The twin if you’re into something a bit melancholic and poetic.

3) Tirza by Arnon Grunberg

Grunberg is a Dutch writer with Jewish roots. He had a huge breakthrough in the early 1990’s with Blue Mondays, a semi-autobiographical novel about a family with a Holocaust trauma. Though you can probably still find the English translation of Blue Mondays in second hand bookstores, it’s also a bit outdated by now. So I suggest you read Tirza instead.

Tirza is an easy read about a guy who has it all: a career, a family and a nice house in Amsterdam. At the graduation party of his youngest daughter we find out that appearances are deceptive. Actually his life is a big mess. This novel is a snapshot of modern Dutch family life. Let’s just hope that this is not what all Dutch families are like!

4) The Dinner by Herman Koch

As the title suggests, the plot of this novel takes place during dinner. An expensive and posh dinner that is, in a restaurant in Amsterdam that sounds a lot like restaurant De Kas.

The main characters of this book are two brothers and their wives. They have a secret. Their sons committed a crime and they urgently need to talk about this. I won’t tell you more, because the suspense that keeps you reading this book is exactly the question: what did they do? The central questions are: what kind of responsibility do you have for the behavior of your children? And should you protect them if you know they’ve done something bad? Food for thought indeed.

The dinner is an easy read about universal moral questions. Because of that it may be more accessible to foreign readers than some of the other novels on this page.

5) In my father’s garden by Jan Siebelink

With Jan Siebelink’s book we return to one of the main themes of Dutch literature: growing up in a conservative protestant household. This is the more or less autobiographical story about Jan’s father. He was a flower grower in Arnhem, who became more and more obsessed by his relationship with god. This of course influenced his relationships with the people around him, not in the least his wife and sons.

In My Father’s Garden was by far the most popular Dutch book in 2005 (the year of its publication). It won several literary prizes and a film was made of it in 2016. Jan Siebelink does a great job describing the Dutch countryside and nature, as well as life in a Calvinist household. You won’t find this a specifically cheerful read though!

6) Two Blankets, Three Sheets by Rodaan Al Galidi

Not particularly cheerful either is Two Blankets, Three Sheets. This is the story of a refugee waiting for a decision by the Dutch immigration office: will they allow him to stay in Holland or will they deport him? It takes the immigration office years to come to a decision. This book is all about what that means to the refugees involved. How their lives come to a standstill and their days evolve around waiting for THE letter from the immigration office.

Sadly, this book is based on Al Galidi’s own experiences as an Iraqi refugee in the Netherlands. He spent many years in refugee lodgings. He taught himself Dutch and wrote this book (and many others) in Dutch. As an outsider to Dutch society and culture he may be an interesting guide to you as a visitor. I think Al Galidi is an original and welcome addition to the Dutch literary landscape. Both in the way he uses the Dutch language (this is probably lost in the English translation) and in the themes of his writing.

7) The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old

Using the concept of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole diaries, this particular diary belongs to Hendrik de Groen. Hendrik is an old aged pensioner living in a care home for the elderly in Amsterdam. This man is not ready to give up his independence though, no matter how hard the authoritarian managers of the care home demand obedience. Hendrik has an adventurous and rebellious character and organizes many adventures.

I think that of all the books in this blog, Hendrik Groen’s diaries are the most fun to read. Some of the episodes are truly hilarious. At the same time you may spot a profound sadness in the book, the sadness of losing loved ones and friends all the time. Some themes in this book are universal themes and will appeal to readers from many countries. This is I guess why this book is available in 35 (!) different languages.There are some typically Dutch themes to the book as well. For example the way the Dutch deal with their older people.

And should you wonder: is Hendrik de Groen a real person? No, he isn’t. The true author of this book (and its sequel) is Peter de Smet. He wished to remain anonymous though and managed to for quite a long time!

Buy Dutch novels in your local bookstore!

It’s easy to order books in an online store, such as the one named after a rain forest in South America. But! Buying books in local stores helps local enterprises and helps keeping shopping districts attractive! Yes, the shopping districts that attract so many tourists and happy bloggers. Most local bookstores will be able to order books they don’t have in store.

Are you already in Holland? Bookstores in larger Dutch cities usually have an English language section. And bookstores in tourist magnets such as Amsterdam will usually have a selection of English translations of Dutch books.

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