One way this is evidenced is in the propensity of Dutch authors to shock. In order to get noticed, to get the outside world’s attention, they’ve taken their writing to extremes: the grosser the better. Shock certainly can have its place, but it can’t be the only thing.
Another impact of Holland’s unique situation is that many Dutch writers end up being derivative. Authors will read the English around them and repackage it for their Dutch audience. This is fine until it gets translated back into English, and it begins to look like déjà vu.
This brings us to Marieke Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening.
By now everyone is aware of the horrors Rijneveld describes, at great and repeated lengths: constipation and diarrhea, abuse of animals and children, improper use of farm implements on humans; ad nauseam. It’s telling that many reviewers, whether from the mainstream media or online, just abandoned the book halfway through, not because they were grossed out, but because they became bored. They stopped caring about the characters.
Rijneveld’s book could be considered in the ‘growing-up-in-a-religious-cult-is-a-bitch’ sub-genre. But that’s been done many times before, and better. I have to wonder, giving their respective ages, if Rijneveld, as a teen, read Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness, and then did the rewrite thing. I have nothing against doing a different take on the same subject, but you can’t give Rijneveld any marks for originality.
And now The Discomfort of Evening has won the International Booker, but A Complicated Kindness never won the Booker. Why? Back to that issue of numbers: the ‘International’ is for translated works, whereas the Booker itself is for that huge, English-language market.
It’s as simple as that.
Derek van Dassen is a Canadian writer, formerly an op-Ed columnist for a major daily newspaper there. He is also still a Dutch citizen and an English-to-Dutch translator for close to thirty years.
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