Theo van Gogh’s polemic prose

Like any fine caricaturist, Theo Van Gogh the columnist was a penetrating observer. He didn’t bluntly insult people. He captured the fleeting but telling ‘facial expression’ and then magnified it many times. Not everybody enjoyed being under his scrutiny… He was assassinated by a Muslim terrorist in November 2004. To put in perspective what Van Gogh had written about Islam in Holland, I have collected and translated a few essential quotes.

Van Gogh (born in 1957 as great-grandson of the famous painter’s brother Theo) was a well-mannered interviewer and a good listener. He was of the opinion that ‘good tv interviewers pull a vacuum of loneliness into which the interviewed shed a glimpse of their unhappiness’. As a movie director, he cared about his actors and was stimulating and cooperative. But as a columnist, he ruthlessly attacked the slightest bit of hypocrisy that he sensed in a person.

This article contains a translated sample of Theo van Gogh’s quotes, taken from his columns. Vicious, vitriolic character attacks on Dutch politicians and media personalities.  A bad boy, indeed. And a pretty darn good columnist too. I hope that, reading these quotes, the adolescent joy will come across of crossing that line of good taste.

First, a rather tame example:

The most annoying example of a moral theologian at work among our interviewers is Wilfried de Jong, a bellowing indignated, who pretends to turn television into Art, with himself as the ‘correct’ protagonist. De Jong knows everything in advance and has until now never been caught displaying even a single bit of interest in his guests. […]

Wilfried de Jong is the type of person that climbs from servant to master and prospers in dictatorships. His programs are of some interest to people who take an interest in exercises in totalitarian thinking.

I should mention that Van Gogh is writing about a respected TV-interviewer of quality programs. He was a far from obvious target and while reading these lines, many must have shaken their heads in disagreement. But the core of truth in Van Gogh’s caricature gradually dawned on me, until it finally hit home years later. This was on the occasion that De Jong publicly humiliated, on a live TV-show, soccer player Patrick Kluivert, who had long been the scapegoat of the nation. Indeed, quite a display of totalitarian thinking.

Theo van Gogh, foto door André Bakker

Theo van Gogh. Foto: André Bakker

Stylistically, Van Gogh often used the trick of feigning reverence or pity, only to strike back twice as hard in the next sentence.

On the front page ‘the plagiarism’ of Margriet de Moor was mentioned. The author claimed that she had acted ‘in good faith’, and although of course she lied, I didn’t experience the malicious delight I usually feel when our Literators have once again been unable to resist a colleague’s candy jar. That is, the books of Mrs. De Moor are written so helplessly that one wishes her readers a permanent plagiarism.

He had his favorite targets, whom he kept attacking whenever he thought it appropriate – or when he was bored. He was quite happy to quote from his own pieces. Perhaps because he had to excel himself each time, the caricatures could evolve into the bizarre:

Mrs. Barend, recently described by me as ‘a plastified mummy who had still lived on Anne Frank’s attic’ came stumbling in behind little Frits: an old man walked his corpse. I found them two pathetic persons, with their: ‘I don’t want to see him on Boudewijns funeral’, and I had to remind myself that compassion is our highest virtue, even for an Auschwitz-pimp who wants to ban me from funerals.

Van Gogh mostly attacked well-respected public figures and spared people who were already under attack by the intelligentsia. He especially despised the ‘champagne socialists’, whose pity with the poor and immigrants he felt was gratuitous.

The Second World War was an ever-present system of reference in these debates. As a moral touchstone, and also by providing a handy jargon for polemic prose. Because of their connotations, words like collaboration, transportation, etc. were hard to resist. Van Gogh saw no problem in using these analogies. However, he mocked others for unjustly using the war in debates:

In lack of arguments, madam Grewel often talked about her experiences during the Occupation, on which she based her moral superiority in matters such as traffic poles, euthanasia and bad weather. […] I have to admit that I found her too stupid to respond to when she railed at me in De Groene [magazine], but also that I greeted her friendly once the final decline had begun and she publicly displayed, in true progressive spirit and like a shaven numbskull, the disadvantages of cancer. With her death, the shadiest efforts of social democracy have gone.

The assassination of Fortuyn
During the rise of the charismatic populist politician Pim Fortuyn (1948 – 2002), the aspect of bored playfulness in his writing made way for something more fundamental. Something urgent was at stake and polemic became a more grim matter – more than just a means of stirring things up, more than a matter of taking stabs at local politicians and B-celebrities.

Van Gogh chose sides with Fortuyn, as the only one of the opinion leaders. Two months before the assassination of Fortuyn, Van Gogh had written:

The funny thing is: Fortuyn and his sympathisers are constantly accused of ‘inciting hatred’, but it is rather the other way round. That Prince Pim still hasn’t been shot on behalf of the politically correct crowd, by some saviour, may be called a true miracle.

The day after the assassination of Fortuyn, Van Gogh wrote a column in which he congratulated the ones he thought were to blame:

What to do with such fine democrats? They aren’t worth spitting on and remind us of antisemites, real ones I mean.

A few months later he wrote a long article, an analysis of the political circumstances that had led to the murder – entitled: Good riddance.

There was a lot of hot air in Fortuyn’s revolution, but it was undeniable that he brilliantly defied all laws in dealing with the electorate. A future prime minister who declared he would continue to visit dark rooms… never before had the political been more personal and the personal more political. […]

The rage of Van Dam, Kok, Van Kemenade, Melkert and all those other champagne socialists was probably also related to the sense that the Left was losing its natural dominance in the public debate in the weeks preceding the sixth of May. It was as if Fortuyn would break the power of the paralyzing Sixties all at once. The gentlemen panicked, as for the first time in Dutch history the outcasts of the nation threatened to actually come into power. That wasn’t the plan. Fortuyn was the hated face of this impending revolt.

The Left was swept away and had only its trite lingo left. A lot of babbling about ‘extreme right’, ‘racism’, ‘the revival of fascism’, thus creating a climate in which murder becomes an act of heroism. There is something perverse about the eagerness with which Volkert van der G. [Fortuyn’s murderer] was denounced a ‘madman’, by politicians as well as the media. A madman frees our guilty conscience from the thought that we might have overreacted a tad. […]

The question comes to mind if in other so-called democratic countries the free press would line up so servilely behind the establishment. […] the lackeys of the government hobbled on, indignant beyond belief. But the people wouldn’t listen anymore. Couldn’t the people be dethroned? […]

In Marcel van Dam’s paradise, there is no place for ‘inferior people’. It’s a place where, as the Germans say, ‘klammheimliche Freude’ reigns when a certain baldy is disposed of. Dirty faggot, he had it coming. […]

Many called Fortuyn’s funeral a case of ‘mass hysteria’. Maybe this is true, but personally I was reminded of  the last journey of Falcone, the Italian Mafia fighter for whom thousands of scared citizens clapped their hands raw. There was one difference: in Fortuyn’s case, the Mafia sat in the Church, with in the front row a  yawning prime minister, who left through the side exit. While he left with his head down, the crowd outside were chanting You’ll never walk alone. Due partly to Kok’s cowardness –  whose policy, soaked in humanitarian small talk, caused seven thousand muslims to be murdered as  ‘our boys’ stood there and watched [Srebrenica], – Holland has become very special. Kok has specialized in condolences, with impressive displays of conscience. An expert in condolences, that came in handy now.’

In the article, Van Gogh mentioned his telephone conversations with ‘the divine bald one’ (Van Gogh liked to address Fortuyn with the words ‘Oh beloved Leader’) and sighed how he would have loved to see the republican, as Prime Minister, shake hands with the Queen, who reputedly hated him.

How I would have granted him the sour smile of that creature.

Hirsi Ali and the Islam
Van Gogh befriended Ayaan Hirsi Ali and supported her cause of denouncing Islam as backward:

It is the paradox of our society that our (just) tolerance gives free play to fanatics who more than anything want to dominate the Free West. Member of parliament Hirsi Ali was completely entitled to speak as she did. The attacks on her are echoes of the retarded Middle Ages. How shady can a muslim be?

Although he had scoffed religious individuals and communities before, notably Christians and Jews, he was especially hard on the Islam in the later years of his life. The phones must have rung off the hook at the so-called ‘anti-discrimination hotline’:

It’s not my fault that some fellow-citizens cling to the fundamentally intolerant religion of a little-girl-fucker who roamed the desert around 666. We may thank Allah that there are hundreds of thousands of reasonable Muslims in this country who don’t defile His name. But they too are intimidated by the at first sight pittoresque rural constables of Mecca’s thought police, who try to sell the blood that steams from their sewers by whining about ‘respect’.

He ridiculed the policy of appeasement of the mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen.

It’s kind of cute, a politician with aspirations of becoming prime minister who shits his pants so much for Allah’s callous hand that he keeps passing around the hat for the multicultural society. Maybe Cohen could enhance the harmony in Amsterdam by playing doormat to the Mosque goers, on which the true believers could wipe their feet. A wave of compassion will go through his party and once again we humble autochthones will experience the delight of our multicultural society.

In the summer of 2004, he directed Hirsi Ali’s anti-Islam film Submission. It was aired about two months before his assassination. At this point it was probably hard for Van Gogh to keep insisting he was just a ‘village idiot’ who wouldn’t be harmed.

In a collection of his columns, published in 2003, he had written in the preface:

This book is called Allah knows best because it is my dark suspicion that the new Middle Ages of Mecca are on the verge of outbreak; and because I, being a professional atheist, feel very unsafe in a climate that is dominated by ambitious mayors who are merrily ‘appeasing the masses’ and drinking tea with dubious mosque boards, while on the 4th of May Moroccan youngsters play soccer with funeral wreaths. Ever since 9/11, remember, the knives are out and the fifth column of goat fuckers marches on relatively unhindered. What else can I say? We live in a nightmare of good intentions and misunderstood idealism.

Three years before his death, in a non-polemic, melancholic column, Van Gogh had written about the ideal woman. In a puzzling, seemingly isolated sentence, he announced:

I will die on the street, even though such is uncomfortable.

march 2007

The quotes in this article are my own translations, taken from columns that Van Gogh published in various media, among which his own website (Dutch) and the free newspaper Metro. They were later republished in two collections of columns, called De gezonde roker (The healthy smoker) and Allah weet het beter (Allah knows best).

In memoriam: Antoine Lamers (1976 – 1993)

Mijn jeugdvriend Antoine Lamers was zeventien jaar oud toen hij op 9 oktober 1993 dodelijk verongelukte. Na een schoolfeest was hij alleen in het donker naar huis gefietst. Op een landweg stond een in de schaduw geparkeerde vrachtwagen, waartegen hij met flinke vaart is aangereden. Zijn voorhoofd werd vol geraakt. Ongetwijfeld op slag bewusteloos, stierf hij daar op straat.

Céline schreef: ‘Als beginneling sta je net zo stuntelig tegenover de Gruwel als tegenover de wellust’. Mijn vader wekte me de volgende ochtend met het Gruwelijke nieuws. Ik at mijn ontbijt in verwarring. Ik zit hier gewoon te kauwen, dacht ik, terwijl er iets is gebeurd wat ik niet voor mogelijk houd. Is Antoine, die ik tien uur geleden nog sprak, nu een lijk? En gaat het leven nu al gewoon verder?

Met een clubgenoot bezocht ik die ochtend Antoines ouders en oudere zus. We dronken bedremmeld onze koffie en zagen hoe het gezin tussen ongeloof en wanhoop heen en weer werd geslingerd – ik begreep vanaf toen de treffendheid van dit cliché. Tussen twee huilbuien door nam moeder Lenie me apart: ‘Zie je dat oude mevrouwtje daar? Die zit hier de hele ochtend al te snikken. Ze kent ons nauwelijks, ze heeft verdriet om haar eigen lang geleden gestorven kinderen.’ Het was voor mij een introductie in de psychologie van de rouw. In tegenstelling tot het vrouwtje had ik als zeventienjarige nog geen oud verlies dat ik op kon roepen: ik had als het ware nog geen startmotor om mijn verdriet aan te zwengelen. Maar sindsdien huil ik bij elke begrafenis ook om Antoine.

Hij was een magere, beweeglijke, enthousiaste jongen. Veel van zijn energie kon hij kwijt in de atletiek. Vanaf ons zestiende waren we behoorlijk serieus in onze aanpak. We trainden mee met de senioren en werden snel beter. Antoine had van ons de meeste aanleg. Aangezien ik ook al niet de killersmentaliteit had – ik vond het niet zo erg om van hem te verliezen – versloeg hij me in clubwedstrijden vaak in de eindsprint. Zijn beste tijd op de 1500 meter, 4.30 min., sla ik hoger aan dan mijn 10.02 min. op de 3000 meter. Beide tijden betekenden voor de jonge vereniging clubrecords in de categorie Junioren B. Antoines record is nog negen jaar blijven staan, het mijne maar twee jaar.

We waren geïnteresseerd in theoretische natuurkunde. Ik herinner me een avondlijke training waarin we genoeg adem over hadden om te praten tijdens het rennen. Antoine vertelde over de flits van inzicht die hij had gehad in de werking van Einsteins beroemde formule: ‘Snap je, de energie die nodig is om een voorwerp tot dichter en dichter naar de lichtsnelheid te versnellen, neemt kwadratisch toe. Op het laatst wordt de energie niet alleen in snelheid omgezet, maar ook in massa!’ Ik voelde dat het juist moest zijn, zonder de relatie met de formule helemaal te bevatten. Hij noemde de titel van een goed boek hierover: Meneer Tompkins’ droom. Op mijn beurt vertelde ik wat ik gelezen had over deze fascinerende wereld van elkaar kruisende treinen en lichtklokken. Antoine: ‘Zie je! Ja, zo is het! Het is zo logisch!’ Door het gesprek waren we ongemerkt sneller gaan rennen.

Ik raadde Antoine steeds aan om natuurkunde te gaan studeren, in mijn ogen toen de enige edele wetenschap. Hij twijfelde, neigde zelfs naar scheikunde. Bij nader inzien denk ik dat hij via de scheikunde wellicht in de moleculaire biologie of genetica zou zijn beland. Want naast numeriek inzicht, had hij ook veel gevoel voor technische vraagstukken. Zijn trotse moeder vertelde graag sterke verhalen hierover. Hoe hij als driejarig jongetje al symmetrische bouwwerkjes maakte en overal de weg vond. Met eigen ogen heb ik gezien dat zijn richtingsgevoel en ruimtelijk inzicht feilloos waren. De IQ-testboekjes die in die tijd in zwang waren, vond hij een lachertje. Zijn scores pasten niet op de schaal.

Niet alles draaide om sport en wetenschap. Samen met Arjan van Strien dronken we bier en keken matige videotheekfilms. We luisterden Nirvana en Sonic Youth (tot mijn afgrijzen zag ik dat Antoine Def Leppard in zijn collectie had. Ook met een vriend kun je diepgaande meningsverschillen hebben). In de zomer ging ons clubje zwemmen in de dode Maasarm bij Niftrik. Een erg leuk spelletje was om een tennisbal over te gooien in een toenemende toestand van aangeschotenheid.

Toen was hij plotseling dood. Tijdens een massaal bezochte dienst namen we afscheid. En daarna moesten we maar weer over tot de orde van de dag. Het was voor mij het laatste jaar van de middelbare school. Zonder veel enthousiasme haalde ik mijn diploma, hield op met atletiek en verloor langzaam Antoines vrienden en familie uit het oog.

Als ik nu aan Antoine denk, is er niet één bepaald beeld dat bij me opkomt. Wat er in mijn gedachten van hem overblijft, is een geest: een onbezorgde, speelse en watervlugge geest. Het is die soepelheid van houding en gedachten die ik me af en toe probeer te herinneren. Ik ben hem nog niet vergeten.

Antoine Lamers

Antoine Lamers (1976-1993)

Gerard Reve – A circus boy – first chapter

A circus boy

Hymn for M.

Oh Thou who knowest and understandest all,
Things Thy Son has no time for, nor patience,
To Thee, dear Mother, I sing this song:
Borne of Thee, I return to Thee.
May it not be long before I am one with Thee.

1 – Birth


First chapter


Wherein the writer contends that he was born uncommonly evil; wherein he attempts to explain his morbid outlook on earthly existence.


It is beyond doubt that I am evil.

(That man is completely evil, and may be said to be incapable of any good, is well established and, fortunately, it is not disputed, except by a few fanatics and lunatics. The question still remains whether man is partly or wholly guilty of his own wickedness. I believe that about half of man’s wickedness stems from nature and birth, while the other half is accounted for by his own free will and choice, which lead him on a path of death and destruction. If human existence were to have any validity and assurance of Eternal Salvation, such would exclusively be through God’s infinite and inscrutable mercy, which is the first, last and only hope of mortals. But this aside.)

If ever the circumstances under which a creature was born established how wicked it was and unworthy of living, it was the circumstances of my birth.

My birth transpired in an extremely labourious manner and lasted thirty-four hours of nigh uninterrupted contractions, which slowly strangled me, again and again, as the cruel prelude of Spanish executions in bygone times. I was born breathless and blue. It was towards the hour of six in the evening; complete darkness reigned outside, and a bitterly cold wind carried with it the first wet flakes of a rising and howling blizzard.

No men were present at my birth: the old, beardy doctor Montezinos, a caring and well-liked alcoholic who was never drunk, had gone away during one of the brief interruptions between contractions, to quickly consume some morsels of scrapple at the residence of a school friend of my parents who lived nearby. When he entered the delivery room again, he had trouble wresting my miserably cold little body from the hands of the midwife, who was slapping my chest and back. He tried to elicit a noise out of me but at first he had just as little luck as she. With improvised ingenuity, he kneaded my chest with his hairy claws, already bent by the onset of arthritis, permanently deforming it into the start of a sunken chest. But now, finally, I let out the requisite noise: first cooing, then squeaking, then screaming. I was born and, for better or for worse, breathing, and destined to live, and to die only much later.

’Blessed are those who scream,’ said the old doctor Montezinos, ’tis an essential virtue, we all depend upon it.’ He was intoxicated but never conclusively proved his drunkenness, and into the small room of the poverty-infested dwelling in Amsterdam, second floor, number 68, Van Hall Street, he belched the smell of recently consumed scrapple, of which microscopically small fragments stuck in his beard.

In addition to the midwife, Doctor Montezinos, the new mother and me, a neighbour was also present in the delivery room: this woman, who lived on the first floor and had been abandoned by her husband, a consumptive basket maker, lived off the small sums of money sent to her at highly irregular intervals by a mother or aunt from the province, and she knew the art of laying on hands, card reading and similar secrets that she, however, never applied for money or gain. She touched my clammy crown that had narrowly escaped Death, and muttered something like: ‘You see? Oh, wait, actually not.’ After discerning a slight unevenness, she had wrongly concluded that I had been born with a caul. ‘Much light shall shine upon him. Bright light. Many lamps. And everyone will look. A lot of people.’ She sighed and half fainted, as she was used to doing on such occasions.

The doctor had just taken himself off, filling the house and staircase with the lingering scent of his regurgitations, when disaster struck anew: my mother had no milk. They had misjudged her tensely swollen breasts, believing they were full of sustenance for a newborn. I refused to drink, which was puzzling. Were the nipples clogged? The midwife, already an expert in the art of infant-slapping, now began squeezing and pressing my mother’s breasts to no end. Full, they were indeed, but the liquid that abundantly gushed forth was not the requisite creamy-white juice of life, but a seeping, half-fermented fluid, which contained almost no nutrients.

In a months-long, unresolved battle between adult determination and childlike repulsion toward life, I was alternately fed buttermilk, watered-down cow milk, dissolved sugar, diluted carrot juice and warmed rice water, endlessly defiling bed linens, curtains, wallpaper, floor and furniture. The adults won the battle, and again I continued living, and acquired the resistance to withstand a multitude of childhood diseases.

I must have been sick almost constantly during the first years of my life, from what I have been told. Still very vaguely, and undetermined with respect to place and circumstances, I have retained these images in my memory: small spaces full of whispering under dim, subdued lamplight; the movements and accompanying little sounds of someone mixing and dissolving tablets, potions and powders; a figure that supports my head and tries to feed me something that is either too hot, too cold, too sweet or too bitter.

In later memories, the images become sharper; the voices are louder and I understand the words. Also, I know more or less by name what it is that I am supposed to drink or swallow. And I know that I am ill and that I will stay ill my entire life.

In one of these remembered images, I am sitting motionless on a chair inside the room, close to the window. Outside, a weak winter sun hangs low and languid over the ugly blue-gray roofs of ugly houses. I am three or four years old, and I am in pain, because I am sick. The pain, deep and throbbing, is just behind my ears, in both the hinges of my jaw, which is wrapped in a cloth, as if I were a dead body that has yet to enter a state of rigor mortis. If I breathe through my nose, the pain seems to spread forward from around my ears, and upward to just below my eye sockets. If I breathe through my mouth, the pain pushes deeper inward, filling almost the entire cavity of my mouth. I ceaselessly alternate these two modes of inhalation, lest the pain advance too far from its starting point, and, moreover, I move as little as possible, because moving creates a draught, and a draught creates coolness, and the slightest coolness on my face increases the pain.

Perhaps it was then that the overpowering and all-eclipsing realisation forever settled in me that to live and to act, or to live and not to act, is all equally pain, and fear, and dismay, and that it is disastrous and a great misfortune to be born and to live.

Continue: the Second chapter.

Many thanks to co-translators Jaason von Banniseht en Mireille Mazard

Second chapter – A circus boy

Second chapter


Wherein the writer exchanges thoughts with his friend Jackal about the fate of mankind and modern means of communication; wherein he makes oral profession of his ecstatic, sensual love for Jackal. 

When Jackal’s parents got their first television, the device was not purchased from an ordinary television merchant, but delivered by a film projectionist from a cinema. The purchase was combined with that of a large sideboard, though this piece of furniture and the television were not attached. The sideboard had such a strange shape and appearance that a furniture maker had to be called to adjust the other pieces of furniture to the sideboard by gluing imitation wood carvings to the legs and the backs of the chairs.

The television had a clear image for about five weeks, until the end of autumn, when it started to display a lot of falling snow, only to become permanently silent more than a month later, blind and dumb. The film projectionist had meanwhile moved to a completely different city. The television and the sideboard, though acquired as a single lot, did not belong together, but furthermore the television set itself turned out not to be a single unit: it consisted, rather, of two halves, each from a different brand, such that any warranty or claim would be in vain.

Jackal’s father, who was very experienced in these kinds of transactions, also never missed an opportunity to buy old radio devices at the market for a few guilders, which he dismantled and stripped of the big, old-fashioned tubes that were often coated with golden or silver metal, and which, in the early days of telegraphy, were called lamps, and, indeed, bore a certain resemblance to electric light bulbs. He looked at and inspected each of the lamps most carefully, especially the ones that had somewhat distinctive shapes and sizes, and ones that carried a second, smaller lamp on top. These compound lamps, in particular, drew his undivided attention: he gazed through cracks in the metal coating and held them to his ear, shook them with the most cautious, careful movements, and listened near the blinded heads of the lamps to the faint murmur of the wires, as if he could still hear the far-away transmitters of strange countries and peoples from long ago. All the lamps were finally placed upright in feeble cardboard boxes, and stowed away in the attic. If one lifted these boxes without exercising extraordinary caution, the bottoms would fall out and the lamps would rain down upon the bare attic floor, at risk of shattering.

‘Those devices never worked’, Jackal said bitterly. ‘None of those devices ever worked.’ He shook his head.

‘Big devices, I suppose?’ I asked.

‘Huge, colossal devices. Gigantic encasements.’

‘Yes. But you have to take into account that a device that does work would probably soon cost, say two hundred fifty guilders,’ I argued. ‘And that would not even be a big device, but one might just as well say a small device, actually. Such a very large device that doesn’t work, for, let’s say, two guilders and fifty cents, that’s not expensive at all, really. Did he also make his own wool carpets on a 429.50 guilders costing do-it-yourself knitting device or six terms of 99 guilders 75 cents within six weeks Your own 85 x 11 centimetre hearth rug bigger sizes on demand?’

‘No, not that,’ Jackal mumbled dully.

‘What a childhood,’ I stated. ‘I bet it rained all the time?’

‘On Sunday afternoons, I don’t know if I ever told you this,’ began Jackal, ‘my father and mother went upstairs to the bedroom. The door was locked. For half an hour, an hour, something like that, I don’t remember exactly. I don’t know what took place there, but afterwards, when they came down, a mood hung, a doom, something so disastrous in the house, impossible to describe. I forgot when it was, but I believe there was almost an entire year in which I cried for days on end.’

‘He was not ever allowed anything,’ I established, very pleased with my own cleverness.

‘You suppose so?’ Jackal sneered. ‘Yes, I still remember hearing my mother say one day, I don’t remember where or to whom: “And then he wants it again in the morning.” ’

‘When you’re with me you can always have your way, Jackal. I want to be a mother to you, who always will allow, you. I mean, always, whenever you want. I’m your bride, your slave, you may look at pictures in a book when you possess me and ride me, just as you please. We can build a small pub table that fits exactly over my neck and shoulders, so that you won’t have to suffer hunger and thirst during your wonderful ride through the land of love. Jackal, I don’t know how I should tell you this, but I am absolutely crazy about you. I’m a man, am I not, but if you stand in front of me, I don’t know why it happens, I want to give myself to you like a woman, with body and soul, honestly.’

Jackal was quiet. I was really completely at a loss for words, but with a fatal urge, I babbled on. ‘Surely, many of your toys were broken in your childhood, Jackal.’

‘Huh? I once got an electric railway train,’ began Jackal. ‘Did I never tell you this? My parents had apparently chanced upon a second-hand one.’

‘From people whose child had recently died,’ I said. Jackal did not react to my words, and, for a brief moment, it seemed as if, what fortune, he had never heard me utter the sentence at all.

‘But it didn’t come with a transformer,’ he continued.

‘Right,’ I said. ‘And that’s how it got connected to the electricity in the wrong way, and for a short while it worked, and then the engine burnt out.’

‘How do you know that?’ Jackal snapped. ‘Have I told you this before?’

‘No. Ah, Jackal. I love you so much. You shouldn’t tell me these stories. I can’t bear it. It drives me crazy. When was that? How old were you? Seven, eight years old?’

‘Eight, I think’, said Jackal. ‘It occurred around the time of the Pinocchio book, and the dollhouse that my sister got from my father.’

‘Didn’t you get a dollhouse yourself?’ I asked. At the very moment I said it, I really did not want to live anymore, but I was also mad with a fear of dying. What reason or excuse could God invent to have Mercy on my poor soul? ‘Yes, sure, Thou rejectest me’, I spoke inaudibly, ‘but hast Thou not created me as I am? Canst Thou reject me while I am precisely the way Thou hast made me and declared me to be?’ I had the imperative feeling that there were only two possibilities: either Jackal or God would push me into the endless Night entirely and irrevocably, for all eternity. ‘If it is the same to Thee, then reject me,’ I whispered, ‘but let Jackal stay with me forever.’

‘I had gotten a Pinocchio book,’ Jackal continued. It was the first book of my own. And my father built a dollhouse for my sister Margriet. Not that it looked like anything, but it was still fun. It even had little paintings in it. And those paintings were the pictures from my Pinocchio book.’

‘Life is really unbearable and impossible to live, Jackal,’ I said softly. I spoke even before I had contemplated my words, but now that I had, I knew I meant it, deeply and painfully, with my entire heart, and that I had not said it out of boredom, nor to be funny, nor to mock Jackal. He was now standing at the window. It did not rain yet. A lead sky hung over the city. ‘In bed, with each other, and we’ll never get out,’ I thought.

I saw how the eternal light of the autumn afternoon illuminated Jackal’s hips and put the arch of his back not in the twilight, but made it stand out quite clearly. Maybe he wore the same clothes as in the photograph he had shown me once, on a merciful day, in which he, seventeen or eighteen years old, had sat on Santa Claus’s knee at a Yuletide celebration, for fun, surrounded by the branches of a Christmas tree, that were decorated with sparkling death snow, silver death lanterns, glass death clocks and the golden, fallen hair of the Angel of Death. It was actually impossible, so many years later, but I wanted to see it this way and it was how it ought to be, that the dark velvet trousers he was wearing now were the same as the ones he had worn in that photograph, resting warm and tight on the knee of the undignified creature of masquerade, and that this would be equally so for the gray striped shirt, and ah, as well, if it pleased God, for his incomprehensible sleeveless knitted sweater, checkered black and grey, a labyrinth of love which would remain a mystery forever, and which he was wearing now, and which, as he rested his elbows on the windowsill, was just slightly pulled up, up to half a palm’s width above his waistband. I loved Jackal, and I was condemned to love him more and more, as long as I would live, but I could never tell it, nor express or show it, the way it was and the way it consumed me.

‘I am dust and ashes,’ I spoke, as one in a stupor. I stood up and got a few steps closer to him. Jackal’s figure had something indisputably imperative, almost majestic about it: even at his young age, one could clearly tell from the way he looked that his father had once been the second most Important person in the country. ‘Allow me to take off your clothes,’ I whispered. ‘May I see you standing naked? I will fold everything up very neatly.’ I now stepped very close to him. His breathtaking, voracious mouth with the big boy lips, which still also were those of a man, opened slightly, and his mouth curled, as if readying itself for devastating mockery, but he said nothing.

With trembling fingers, staring outside as if deep in thought, in order to hide my ardent longing to behold his body, I started unbuttoning his shirt under his sweater. Jackal allowed me to have my way, lifting his arms to let me slide his shirt and his sweater off his upper body. I lay them, like the ermine mantle of a young king, over the back of a chair, which was actually a throne. How could it be that Jackal reigned by denuding himself, whilst for all other mortal beings nakedness made them defenceless? As I continued undressing him, it was as if he became even mightier, more merciless and cruel.

I had removed his shoes and socks, and now I slid his dark, tight school pants down from his hips and legs, slowly, as if in a silent act of ceremony, whilst I knelt and took on the servile posture of a penniless tailor in a fairytale, reverentially supporting each of his feet, to let him step out of both of his pant legs. I laid his trousers over the armrest of the chair, in such a way that the tender bulges in the back, where the fabric had been granted the task to hold and warm Jackal’s buttocks and protect them against the unchaste and ravishing looks of men who harboured deviant desires, remained very clearly discernible in the material, which was still warm.

Jackal now stood completely bare, with the exception of his light blue, tiny imitation silk underpants, which traced his remarkable masculine shapes with exceptional fidelity. I looked at his Love, which could be called covered, but hardly concealed, considering its size, that I wanted to see rise and rear like a beautiful predator disturbed in his sleep, with all the longing of my heart that was eternally addicted to Jackal. After I laid down his velvet trousers over the chair, I again came close to Jackal, and my hands reached for the elastic cord of the last small piece of cotton that still covered the Truth, but Jackal did not wait for me, and with a few swift gestures removed the final curtain that still covered the Mystery of all mysteries, and which stretched over his blond Member in a tender, heavenly blue glow. His nakedness was as dizzying as it had been almost a year ago during our first encounter, when I had started to undress him with the same shyness, almost without daring to say or ask anything, because how could a Boy like him ever love someone like me?

I began touching and stroking Jackal with the same shiver of insecurity as I did back then: just like then, I could not find the courage to touch his belly right away, and I first touched and caressed his boy neck, but while doing so I had to look, whether I wanted to or not, at his rider’s hips and his dark, enormous sex.

‘If I seek out a boy and give him to you, Jackal,’ I began uneasily and with a slightly hoarse voice, because how could you know in advance how it would unfold, ‘then it should be a boy with a narrow, shallow groove and a small cave, but with a big mouth: so that he may nicely scream and bawl with pain, and cry, while you slowly work your way into him from below.’ I now touched, in proud reverence, the lower part of his back, and felt with my fingertips the tender parting where his posterior began, and then, barely touching his skin, with the back of my hand I caressed both the arched indentations at the outsides of his tight, motionless boy buttocks, while I breathlessly kept looking at his dark groin.

Jackal’s buttocks tightened more vigorously under my touch. His breath came deeper and heavier. I saw his weaponry rise with little jerks, and exaltation made my timidity abate. I knelt down to kiss the arms under which I would want to serve him forever; I blew cautiously on this improbably large horn of love and abundance, and I felt that I was lifted up and carried by an inaudible music of the spheres, which filled the entire universe.

Continue: Third chapter

Many thanks to co-translators Jaason von Banniseht en Mireille Mazard

Third chapter – A circus boy

Third chapter


Wherein the writer begins the wondrous story of his purchase, from the possession of a foreign Prince, of a young mestizo, who has to serve Jackal as a slave; wherein he furthermore makes mention of his camping experiences.

It did not take long before Jackal and I, both completely undressed, laid in each other’s arms in a breathless embrace. We had laid down on the beautifully arched cedar resting bed, decorated with Persian gold, bought in Pompeii on one of my foolhardy journeys, piteously broken in the middle but carefully repaired, and which, with a probability bordering on certainty, had belonged to the young love companion of the Roman emperor Titus.

We resided in my Chateau La G., in the R. valley, a pleasant place to stay in autumn, in the tower chamber, which was easy to heat, and offered a view over almost the entire little town nearby.

At first I could not speak from emotion, as I felt Jackal’s cool, supple boy skin that smelled of fresh hay and Russian leather against my paltry limbs that shivered from the fever of love. It was a happiness that frightened me: how could this Mercy have been granted to me, one who was untimely born, who, with all my attempts at penitence, my devotion and my pilgrimages, had always led such a reprehensible, sinful, yes, from a moral point of view, repulsive life? I had committed many of my sinful, deviant excesses on my journeys, and my thoughts now went back to them, with deep remorse and regret. How much I had desecrated my own body and, in so doing, that of the Creator! If I deserved anything at all, it had to be the eternal, hellish torture of irrevocable Judgment, and in no way the delight of this bed of love. I yearned to be judged and chastised for my words and deeds at this very instant. If the Most High imposed such a punishment already in this life, could He charge Jackal with the execution of it?

‘When will you finally really hit me, Jackal?’ I whispered. ‘You are a man, aren’t you, and not some kind of queer? When will you give me a sound beating again, like there is no tomorrow?’

Jackal smiled. ‘Do you remember, Jackal, how you handled that unfaithful Mestizo back then, whom I had bought for you in a foreign country? If you hit me like that, I mean the way you chastised that adulterous creature of love… Oh, Jackal, how madly did I love you then. That was when my love had only really begun. Do you remember?’

‘Not exactly,’ Jackal said softly. He now relaxed his entire, mighty, lazy body, and he laid back, placing his hands behind his neck, the way Boys always laid back at summer camp after chopping wood or days of pointless path-finding, or after having conducted some useless research about indistinct animals living in the wild that were no longer there: near his tent, such a boy then laid back on the short, uncut grass, which had already turned to hay because of the drought, whilst his largely innocent Boyness was clearly outlined in his thin cotton pants, smeared with lichen stains. A cursed, but indelible memory stopped by and came over me: of a boy who once, in my youth at a summer camp, had laid like that, backward on the ground, in all his ignorant shamelessness, half hidden behind a tent… where I had spied on him, each time he was lying there, from under the curtain of another tent… when I had been maybe ten or eleven years old; the boy possibly of the same age, with the odd name Wijnand. With all my desperate, dark, cruel longing for his body and his voice, I had, for days and days of emptiness and loneliness, waited for an incident, anything, that could lead to his humiliation and punishment and his subjection to severe pain. And that longing had been fulfilled – truly the only time in my life that any of my sinful desires had ever been directly realised. I would have liked to tell Jackal about it immediately, so that the cruel incident of so long ago, which I had not shared with anybody until now, would give him the same, dark ecstasy as I had felt back then, on that particular afternoon, years and years ago, which had overwhelmed me for the rest of my life.

‘What is a Mestizo, actually?’ Jackal wanted to know.

‘They are often exceptionally beautiful boys,’ I started. ‘A Mestizo is born of an Indian mother, but conceived by a white man. They can’t count, but they are said to be very diligent. That’s why I bought him for you, when I was most deeply moved by his naked beauty, although his master did not want to give him away, not even for the highest bid. I had a book with me… But let me start from the beginning…’

‘He was unfaithful, you said?’ Jackal asked. ‘To whom?’

‘He would one day be unfaithful to you, in his randy, adulterous audacity, Jackal, with that sluttish, young blond bear of a mailman in V., but nobody could know that at that time. He was not even in the country yet! He was still in a foreign, faraway country. He still belonged to an entirely different person. He didn’t belong to you and you hadn’t even laid eyes on him! But I saw him, in the court of the young Prince, whose guest I was, and who overwhelmed me with generosity. There were also boys, dressed as girls, dancing with shiny jewellery and rings in their cute ears.’ I laid my hand on Jackal’s dark Member, and cupped it loosely and tenderly. While speaking the last sentence, Jackal’s breathing had quickened a little, and his Member, although not yet in a state of alarm, let alone ready to fire, had nevertheless become distinctly more robust.

I thought it miraculous and, at the same time, heavenly that I was allowed to tell him what we had been through together, accurately and faithfully, whilst he nevertheless already knew everything I was about to recount.

‘One day, Jackal, I will write everything down. It will become a book which contains everything, everything regarding our Love: I will write it down so beautifully that the rich, in their lascivious houses in the hills, will have it read to them by their slaves, whilst they are seated in front of an early fire, with a strum of music and strings played, not as a melody but as a backdrop: a dark lute, or a deep, sweetly moaning flute made of soft fig wood. The night falls, but the rich man, in his hedonism never satisfied, and the slave, having become tired and hoarse from reading, is generously plied with enticing beverages, such that he may continue to read without his voice failing him.’

Jackal smiled again, and nodded. In silent, grateful ecstasy, I started, at first hesitating, but gradually with a bolder, moving voice, to evoke the beloved story for Jackal, which would once again have to make him yearn, and make him gluttonous for love and through cruelty intemperately randy.

‘Listen, Jackal. I traveled far away, alone, and I arrived in a remote, strange country, where I enjoyed the hospitality of an opulent Prince, who possessed nearly everything and ruled all the land. They were a completely foreign people. At night, seated in front of the fire, the Prince asked me everything about my country, and how people loved one another there, and we talked until the deep of night. The Prince was still young, and beautiful, and powerful, and rich, but he was also very Lonely. He, however, never mentioned that.

I was given a chamber for the night in the guest pavilion of the princely palace, and lay awake for a while, listening to the wonderful, far-away music and the dancers’ voices, and I was still full of thoughts about the wondrous things the Prince had told me about his faith and his love.

I slept deeply, for a long time, and the sun was already high in the sky when I awoke and heard feeble noises outside which I could not identify. I stood up from the lush, golden, lily-shaped bed that the Prince had ordered to be swiftly carried into my room on the previous evening after my arrival, and stood at the opened window. My breath was taken away by what I saw, Jackal. A small, round pond was situated in front of the pavilion, where a fountain poured out its crystal clear water, softly splashing. Sitting crouched at the well was a boy, drawing water into two beautiful copper buckets that seemed to be made of gold, so shiny were they. He was almost naked, that boy, Jackal. He wore only sandals on his naked feet and, held tight over his groin by thin cords, a very small triangular cloth of supple, almost transparent leather. I looked at him half from behind, half from the side, but his face was turned somewhat in my direction, such that I could, to a great extent, discern his countenance. I knew two things, Jackal. I knew that I would do everything within my power and give everything to be able to bring him back for you. But I also knew that I had seen the same boy face before, once, long, long ago. It could not have been the same boy, because the memory was from too long ago, Jackal. But it was the same face as that of the boy that I… I once had a boy… had him… It was in a… Are you asleep?’


‘So I took with me that young, almost naked Mestizo at the well, for you, Jackal. But he looked like a different boy, a boy from long ago. Do you know what I did to that boy, cruel, sweet beast of mine? Shall I tell that one first…?’

The sound of Jackal’s moan set off a jubilant resonance in me, because I knew that he was longing and eager to hear the story that I had never told to anyone, that I had carried with me in the deepest secrecy for years, but that I would now reveal to Jackal, and only to him.

‘What I did then, I would do again now, Jackal, countless times, for you, always, again and again…’ I panted lightly. I looked at Jackal, who was smiling again, and now I caressed his huge club of love, which rose with a slight shock with each caress, only to descend slowly again. Jackal felt no shame, and he smiled at me, and my own shame, which had, for such a long time, covered my secret with silence, parted from me, and I could tell him about the incident that I had kept a secret for so many years.

How long ago did it happen? I think I was ten or eleven years old, attending some kind of summer camp. I do not remember if it was a camp  organised by my school, or by a club that wanted to bring young people into closer contact with nature. I actually believe that I, like always, did not belong there – I mean that my stay and participation were not in accordance with the regulations: I did not attend the school where all the other boys of the camp went, and by no means was I a member of the youth club that would have organised this and that. I think that a good acquaintance of a friend of a neighbour had managed to place me in that summer camp for boys, probably in the nick of time, a few days before the start of the summer holiday. The camp lasted three weeks, but I stayed only nine or ten days: the period during which, for some reason, the place of an absent or sick boy was vacant.

(Tented camps in a valley, and then a hurricane, or a river dam that breaks, and immerses the families of eighty-one boys and eleven youth leaders in grief – I don’t know why, but I always remain unmoved whilst reading such reports, breathing a little faster at the most; when a rat or a dog or a cat is run over, it moves me a thousand times more.)

People also sang at the camp. None of the youth leaders were pretty: they had small mouths, and some of them drooled.

One often went hiking, in large groups, where one had to walk two by two, and the leaders tried to turn hiking into a kind of march, setting the example by making their arms swing out emphatically, in time with their steps.

During the evenings we were read to from a book, in which it was explained how stupid the people from long ago really were, because they believed in all kinds of little gods and even in God, until they had gradually come to their senses and started to measure the temperature of gases.

The camp did not only consist of tents: there were also at least two wooden barracks, where one was not always allowed inside and which remained reserved, mostly for use in inclement weather.

One afternoon, I was alone in one of these barracks that had high, dusty windows, through which one could not look outside. The weather was only moderately good: it was windless and overcast, with brief spells of extremely light, barely noticeable drizzle. Almost everyone at the camp had gone, participating in one of the countless, inevitable hikes. I do not remember how many people the camp counted. In one’s memory, one always imagines huge numbers, but the total number of persons, including the staff, probably did not exceed three dozen.

Neither of the barracks had been meant as living quarters. Rather, they were large sheds that had had something to do with poultry farming, as the entire encampment stood on the site of a former chicken farm. One barrack was completely barren and empty, but the other, where I was that afternoon, had, on one side, been very minimally equipped as a day room, possibly for gatherings of the local boy scouts: a wooden barrel and an empty wooden spool, put down like a mushroom that had once been wound with underground electrical wires, served as tables, and all kinds of crates and boxes served as chairs, and there was even a sort of a counter or bar, constructed from orange crates and overlaid with plywood. A few worn smoker’s ashtrays made of enamel or porcelain with tobacco advertisements on them were placed on that counter and also elsewhere on the other very basic furnishings. Empty bottles and jam jars without labels, which apparently could no longer be returned for deposit money, were placed on the ground. Some kind of statuette that was made of stone or porcelain, about a quarter of a metre in height, or possibly even significantly smaller, stood on the bar, close to the wall.

I was alone in the barrack, and in my hand I kept a thin, flexible willow branch, that I had cut off somewhere and that I uselessly let swish about, and that I used now and then to deal out welts on the wooden walls and random objects that I took for targets.

I can now surmise with certainty that, apart from me, no one else was present at the entire camp that afternoon other than a boy and a leader. Of all the boys that comprised the camp, not one of them had handsome looks or anything cute about them, except for one boy, and exactly this boy had not left with the others but had stayed behind in the camp, just as one of the leaders had. This boy, who carried the remarkable name ‘Wijnand’, did not usually participate in strenuous games or long hikes, because he was said to have an ailment, asthma, or diabetes or weak lungs or a whistling heart valve – I do not remember what it was: maybe he has already died long ago, but I still suspect, I do not know why, that, in reality, there was nothing wrong with him.

He was exceptionally beautiful, this Wijnand, in any case according to the standards of worship that I upheld at my tenth or eleventh year of age and, therefore, I had never dared to approach him. In a crucial way he was different from the other boys, and like me, did not belong to the group, although in a completely different way than me: I believe that he was from a somewhat well-off family, at least compared to the paupers from which everyone else descended, including me, and it could possibly be that his parents had a say in the camp, which they might have supported financially, as the boy enjoyed a certain cautious protection and was spared in all kinds of ways.

His appearance, which I can still summon with photographic clarity after so many years, attracted me in an imperative and inescapable manner, which confused me profoundly. Despite his somewhat fragile, vulnerable physique and his clearly shy expression, I attributed the brute, unpredictable power of an animal to him, and secretly gave him the name Brother Fox, whispering it in the darkness of my tent in my camping bed, while I touched myself thinking of him. In my opinion he looked like a mighty fox, and I revered him. His face was narrow, with deep-seated, grey eyes, and his dark, lank hair, here and there slightly discoloured by the sun, was cut short on the back and on the crown, but kept fairly long on the front, where it often fell very elegantly over his forehead. He had a big, sharp nose and a distinctly chiselled mouth, which was sturdy in comparison to the rest of his slender face, and readily showed his somewhat irregularly implanted, razor-sharp fangs. I believed he was older and stronger than I, but now suspect with assurance that he could not have been older, and that my imagination that had made him physically stronger than myself, was completely influenced by my desperate reverence for him. (Only many, many years later have I understood that he, this Wijnand, sought me out and must have been attracted to me, but I could not conceive it, and was avoiding and fleeing him in all my desperate longing.)

He wore somewhat better clothes than we did, mostly finely striped shirts, which were still quite expensive when they were in fashion, and short, black cotton trousers, carefully chosen or even tailor-made, and his shoes as well, were made from expensive, supple, unpainted leather a model of mountaineering boots which city dwellers took for luxurious footwear. I worshipped his expensive, moss-green stockings, which boys in those days wore just up to the knee, and which may or may not have been decorated with wool tassels, one of which he sometimes lowered with a casualness that completely overwhelmed me.

That afternoon he had, as mentioned, stayed at the camp, but I did not know where he was. At least one of the leaders must have stayed as well, but where he was – in the barrack, in one of the tents – I also did not know. I had stayed behind on account of some pretext: that my foot hurt, supposedly injured after a jump, something of the sort.

In the barrack, where I was alone, an almost perfect silence reigned: the drizzle made hardly any sound on the corrugated iron roof. I walked around the well-trodden, dry clay floor, and hit a willow tree branch with force against the wooden walls, such that the green skin on the tip of the branch was stripped. I stopped in front of the wooden crate counter and struck forcefully the plywood countertop that was painted in a dull black, ink-like watercolour as I approached the side of the barrack that had been set up to be a day room. Fine dust whirled up after my blow, and the ashtrays and the statuette danced and wiggled. The ashtrays remained more or less in their places, but the statuette moved in my direction towards the edge of the counter. Again, I struck my branch on the poor, thin plywood surface; and the statuette, hopping up a few millimetres and turning slightly on its axis, shifted again towards the edge, while the ashtrays stayed more or less where they were. I struck the withered, loudly resonating wood a third and fourth time. With the fourth blow the statuette reached the edge, and a small part of its stand went over, but after a few wobbles, it remained standing. I hit the top for a fifth time, now harder than any of the previous times. The statuette jittered, shifted along the edge, toppled, and fell. Most of the barrack floor consisted of tamped, smoothed out clay, but all around the counter they had made primitive flooring that consisted of evenly placed bricks, apparently originating from a demolition. The statuette fell backwards onto this brick surface, and broke into three big pieces, which I gathered and fitted together. I managed to put together the pieces in a precarious and unstable configuration, and to put down the statuette in its entirety in such a way that it remained standing, such that, upon superficial inspection, the damage was not even visible. At that moment the barrack door opened, squeaking loudly. I stood motionless and had to hold my breath for a moment: Wijnand stood in the doorway, curiously looking about whilst his eyes adapted to the faint light. He must have walked outside for some time, in the drizzle, because part of his hair was soaking wet, part of it was half-drenched, and covered with fine drops of water. He entered, closed the door, and slowly walked towards me. I stood frozen, expressionless, but I also knew, in immense depth of a suddenly all-encompassing knowledge, that something decisive would unfold in my life, which I would be unable to change, because it had already been inescapably predestined before all time.

‘What are you doing?’ Wijnand asked, still standing at a short distance from me. It was as if at first I only saw the movements of his mouth, and only much later heard the sound of his voice and understood his words.

‘I am looking at all kinds of things,’ I answered hoarsely. ‘Don’t you think that’s a funny statuette?’ Wijnand walked towards the counter and stretched his hand towards the statuette. At that moment, I heard someone outside, at the barrack door. Once again I knew that everything that would follow was now immovably definite and already dictated before the dawn of time.

The door opened. Only the youth leader that had stayed behind at the camp was standing in the doorway. He was ugly, and I remember considering him to be old, the way young people think everyone is old who his ten years their senior. It is possible that he was not much beyond his late twenties, but there was already something bony and worn out about him, in his somewhat saggy clothes, and the black beret that he wore tightly over his head completed his nameless insignificance.

‘So? What are we doing here?’ he asked in turn. Little saliva bubbles were visible at the corners of his mouth. He stood very close to us. At that very moment the broken, put-together pieces of the statuette crumbled in Wijnand’s hands and clattered down onto the counter and floor.

‘He is smashing beautiful statuettes, that sort of thing’, I said. ‘Probably because he’s bored.’

It was as if the walls echoed my words, and gave them an even more imperative clarity. Wijnand turned around and stood before us, his hands displayed helplessly. His bestial, big boy mouth trembled: he apparently wanted to say something, but he had to swallow first. With a few quick movements, which I did not have to think out because they had been ordered already before the creation of all things, I grabbed him, pulled him towards me face down, forced him to bend down, locked his neck between my legs, and with a swift gesture handed the youth leader the willow branch that I had clenched between my teeth during the short struggle. I knew that nothing I did was ambiguous or required an explanation, but that the youth leader had wanted and desired the same unavoidable thing as I from the very first moment. Without hesitating for even one second, he accepted the branch from me. The door of the barrack, which had remained open, now started to close, as I had always known it would because of the draught, slowly at first and then faster, and finally flew shut with a firm slam.

‘Why did you do that?’ the youth leader asked, but it was not at all a question that required any answer. Wijnand’s voice, which reverberated up to my groin through the skull of his bones, started to stammer something, but the youth leader was already making the willow branch whistle through the air and, with brute force, intending to inflict as much pain as possible, let it land on the tight seat of Brother Fox’s black pants. A cry rose from his throat, part scream and partly turning into a fierce sob, but the next welt already came down. I now smelled the dazzling fragrance of Wijnand’s boy sweat, and on the inside of my thighs became aware of the warmth of his tender yet muscular boy body. I pulled up his waistband with both my hands to make the thin cotton of his short pants tighten to the utmost over his small, hard and high buttocks.

The youth leader struck another blow, with almost athletic force, and Wijnand’s crying passed into a hoarse roar that reverberated through my upper legs into my whole lower body. He seemed to have regained breath only then to try to wrest himself free. I kept him locked down with all the force I could muster, but I also knew that it was impossible for me to ever let him go before I…

The youth leader now hit a little lower, just above the edge of the legs of Wijnand’s short trousers, which I still held tight as a drum skin. The boy’s electric cries became fiercer and higher in tone. Jerking his neck and shoulders, he did everything he could to pull out of my grip, while he tried to protect his bottom with his hands.

‘He really should get it on his bare buttocks,’ I spoke slowly and loudly without looking at the youth leader. He now let the next blow strike across Wijnand’s naked upper thighs, with the stripped extremity of the branch, then again a little lower, with truly unmatched calculation and cruelty. I felt his entire body rise in a wave of pain, whilst his cries became shriller, so hoarse they almost whistled. His head was banging about between my knees, in a frenzy, and his wet, warm hair sprinkled my bare legs. ‘I loved him, Jackal. I loved him… finally, finally I understood… and I kept thinking the same thing, the same words over and over again: Fox song, fox song… that is what I kept thinking, Jackal… Fox song… and then… My groin flooded with my own love-juice, Jackal, you know that?’ Do you like what I am telling you?’

‘Yes…’ I now manipulated Jackal’s member with all the ingenuity that love availeth.

‘Jackal, listen… That boy, back then… I had him whipped, but for whom…? In whose name could I have him whipped? Back then I had… nobody… I was alone in this world… I did not know you yet, Jackal. But now… I know boys like Wijnand, now… I know where they live, and what they’re up to together, Jackal… I know where they go to school, those little whores from technical school, with their whorish arses… We take them home, one at a time, or in pairs, two friends, of which one has to watch while we chastise the other, the pretty one. His velvet trousers go down, Jackal… We tie his hands behind his back… And I whip him for you, for you, Jackal… You are dressed from head to toe in tight, dark leather; you are also wearing leather gloves… You pull his buttocks apart, for me, for my whip… a thin riding whip… and I whip him, I hit him… in between, in between… that little whore… right there… in his crack, on his small notch and on his blond boy purse underneath, his whorish purse… with the thin whip… that he… ’

Jackal’s lower torso jolted, and from his silent barrel he now fired: two, three, four times; the first shot went over our heads and landed somewhere behind us, in the bookcase. His mighty body vibrated some more, and then lay silent. He had closed his eyes, his head tilted a bit, with his face turned halfway towards me. It seemed as if he were already sleeping . I touched the threads of the wondrous web of love that he had just spun with his white blood, which formed a net around his blond groin, in which I hoped and prayed and longed to be held forever as a prisoner of Love.

At first I did nothing but look at Jackal’s face. I could now ask him to touch me, and tell me the things that could for some moments cure my deadly wound, but I decided not to interrupt his holy slumber. I touched myself, cautiously speaking my words of worship, very quietly, almost inaudibly, while repeatedly halting, to listen to his slow, deep, satisfied breathing. Outside, the evening turned to dusk. My gaze rested on his mouth in the twilight. I could not find peace in the thought that he would have to die one day.

Many thanks to co-translators Jaason von Banniseht en Mireille Mazard

Reves Raleigh

De ‘Jane Raleigh-episode’ uit Oud en Eenzaam (1978) is misschien het beste wat Gerard Reve ooit geschreven heeft. Het is een meesterlijke samensmelting van scherpe observatie en grote symboliek, van rauwe eerlijkheid en cliché, van het banale en het verhevene.

Hoewel het verhaal in sommige opzichten ‘groter dan het leven zelf’ is, is het toch op een diep niveau overtuigend. Jane Raleigh is een Mariafiguur, een engel, maar wel een engel die geloofwaardig menselijke gestalte heeft gekregen. Evenmin alledaags is de verteller, met zijn perverse en bezeten gedachtenwereld. Zeker, het recept voor een droeve geschiedenis waarin weer geen normaal mens voorkomt. En toch, zoals in elke tragedie: de grootsheid zegeviert. Temidden van alle treurnis is Jane Raleigh in staat tot een grootse daad.

De verteller, genaamd Gerard, bewoont in het midden van de jaren vijftig een flatje in Londen. Hij leeft op een ‘bescheiden toelage van gravin van B.’, en heeft nog korte tijd ‘gewerkt als assistent-doodgraver’. Voordat hij begint aan zijn relaas, waarschuwt hij de lezer nog maar: ‘Ik moet daarbij opmerken dat er in al mijn herinneringen opmerkelijk veel regen valt.’

Gerard gaat vaak op bezoek bij Jane, die om financiële redenen een appartement deelt met haar onbenullige collega Jacky. Hij is een bijfiguur, die als volgt gekarakteriseerd wordt:

Ik geloof niet, dat hij enig talent bezat. Steeds als ik hem een rol zag instuderen, viel het me op, dat hij wel mal praten en mal lopen had geleerd, en dat hij wel degelijk een soort hysterische dubbelganger van zichzelf tot uitdrukking kon brengen, maar dat hij niet de rol van een andere persoon ontroerend of overtuigend kon vertolken.

Het is onvermijdelijk dat Jacky lijdend voorwerp wordt van de ‘tamelijk universeel gerichte, altijd op scherp staande geilheid ’ van de verteller. Maar dit is slechts bijzaak in het verhaal. De heldin is Jane, voor wie Gerard al gauw sympathie voelt.

Ze was blond, slank, en had een prettig voorkomen, maar ik geloof niet dat ze overweldigend mooi was, al was ze zeker veel aantrekkelijker dan de meeste Britse jonge vrouwen van haar leeftijd. […] Uit alles bleek, dat ze graag iets zou willen bereiken en verder komen dan dit zogenaamd nette kamertje in een zogenaamd nette buurt […] maar bij haar school er in dat verlangen niet die verkrampte grimmigheid, die men bij veel kunstenaarsvolk aantreft: ze kon ook nog aan andere dingen dan aan haar carrière denken.

Tijdens een van de zaterdagmiddagen waarop Jane vrienden ontvangt, in Gerards ogen een ‘troep kwetterende urningen’, slaat hij haar met bewondering gade:

Ze hoorde de meest onbenullige kletsverhalen met het sereenste geduld aan, en accepteerde met een stralend gezicht de eeuwige doos bonbons […] Ik geloof niet dat deze bereidwilligheid een pose van haar was, maar dat het wel degelijk haar eigen, van nature gegeven warmte was, die het haar mogelijk maakte, iedereen in zijn waarde te laten.

Dat Gerard eigenlijk van de herenliefde is, hoeft een romance tussen hem en Jane niet in de weg te staan. Wel compliceert het de zaak. De liefdesscènes zal ik hier niet citeren – ze zijn op zijn zachtst gezegd unsettling.

Portret van Reve door Siegfried Woldhek

Portret van Reve door Siegfried Woldhek

De rode draad van het verhaal zijn de repetities en opvoeringen van een toneelstuk waarin Jane de hoofdrol speelt. We maken kennis met de regisseur van het stuk, een enthousiast maar talentloos figuur, en met Janes vader, een onopvallende man die zielsveel van zijn dochter houdt.

Ik heb zelden in mijn leven iemand gezien wiens wezen zo geheel doortrokken was van toewijding aan iemand anders. Men kon niet zeggen dat hij op een of andere meelijwekkende wijze zichzelf klein maakte, zoals men ouders wel ziet doen, die hun kinderen door een terreur aan offerzin te gronde richten. Neen, dit was anders: de man was gelukkig omdat hij in de onmiddellijke nabijheid van zijn dochter vertoefde.

Het toneelstuk is een matige vertoning, hoewel Jane een goede prestatie levert. De première oogst een bescheiden applaus, waarna het ‘imbeciele, obligate bezoek achter de koelissen’ plaatsvindt:

De verstijvende angst van de afgelopen uren was nog niet geheel van mij geweken, en ik omhelsde haar alsof ook dit een toneelhandeling was die nog mis kon gaan.

Het stuk krijgt nog twee voorstellingen, waarbij het publiek het laat afweten. Ook de verhouding tussen Jane en Gerard is in diens ogen niet levensvatbaar. Hij ziet het niet meer zitten:

Wat bracht ik van mijn leven terecht, en wat deed ik hier, in deze kamer? Het waren nutteloze vragen en nutteloze gedachten, maar ik kon ze niet uitbannen.

Ik hoorde Jacky in zijn kamer zijn filmtekst, die hij nimmer vanaf enige filmdoek in enige bioscoopzaal zou uitspreken, met zijn gewone zenuwlijersstem, net iets te vlug, luid uitjammeren. Ja, een film was het allemaal, waar of niet, waarin je optrad maar die nooit werd opgenomen laat staan vertoond, hoe luid de camera ook snorde, omdat er geen filmrol in zat.

Jacky moest dood en Jane was lief, maar als het andersom was, wat zou het dan uitmaken? Ik zou éénendertig jaar oud worden, dit jaar, en ik had één boek geschreven, dat eigenlijk nergens over ging. Dat was alles. En ik was een flikker, die zich nog heel wat verbeeldde omdat hij het ook met een vrouw kon – ja, als hij daarbij gedachten en beelden opriep die hij niemand ooit zou kunnen toevertrouwen, maar die de vloek vormden die op zijn leven rustte.

Hij had ons gewaarschuwd… En toch is niet alles reddeloos verloren. Dankzij een genadige geste van Jane, die diepe indruk maakt op Gerard, loopt het verhaal hoopvol af.

De betovering van het verhaal zit hem deels in het ‘rituele schijnsel van het toneellicht’ waaronder de gebeurtenissen plaatsvinden. De filmische enscenering, het decor van het regenachtige Londen, het is allemaal een prachtige film noir. De verteller is de held die aan het leven lijdt – een James Dean met een tik van de molen. Door zijn toegeknepen ogen ziet hij wel degelijk de goedheid van zijn beminde vrouw, maar staat machteloos tegenover het noodlot. Het meesterschap van Reve is dat hij dit toneelmatige decor weet te gebruiken om een in wezen ernstig en ontroerend verhaal te vertellen. Hij voegt naar hartelust nogal ongeloofwaardige, grimmige details toe (we hopen althans dat de werkelijkheid niet zo hardvochtig was als Reve deze weergeeft) zonder daarmee, vreemd genoeg, de emotionele kern van het verhaal aan te tasten.

Verbluffend zijn het gemak en de doeltreffendheid van stijl. Zonder overdrijving, is elke alinea eigenlijk het citeren waard. We blijven gevrijwaard van ‘geoudehoer waar gods zegen op rust’. In een bestek van nauwelijks zeventig pagina’s worden de twee hoofdpersonen en een drietal bijfiguren overtuigend neergezet en wordt hun levenslot ontvouwd. Het is opmerkelijk hoe weinig dialoog Reve hiervoor nodig heeft. Hoewel Jane helemaal tot leven komt, spreekt zij in het verhaal hooguit een handvol zinnen. De dingen die ze zegt, zijn echter zo goed geplaatst en zo waarachtig, dat de lezer sprakeloos achterblijft. Hoeveel woorden heeft een engel nodig om haar boodschap te brengen? Acht, in dit verhaal.

Tijdens het lezen voelen we, achter de verteller Gerard, de aanwezigheid van de schrijver Gerard. De verteller mag dan hulpeloos zijn, de schrijver laat ons weten wie er aan de touwtjes trekt. Het klapstuk is de laatste pagina, waar beide temperamenten fel contrasterend tegenover elkaar staan: de sardonische grijns van de almachtige schrijver versus de oprecht gevoelde liefde voor een vrouw van de verteller. De schrijver wrijft ons nog maar eens in dat het een voorstelling is, om onmiddellijk daarna, weer samenvallend met zijn verteller, te laten merken dat het hem diepe ernst is. Eerst grinniken wij lezers, daarna staren we stil voor ons uit.

Er wordt wel gezegd dat Reve zich na de brievenboeken Op weg naar het einde en Nader tot U heeft verloren in decadent geschrijf over fluwelen broekjes en ‘jongensheuvels’. Ook lijkt het mode om te beweren dat Werther Nieland uit 1949 zijn meesterwerk is. Zonder iets af te doen aan de kracht van welk werk van Reve dan ook, wil ik een lans breken voor Oud en Eenzaam (dat een raamvertelling is en dat behalve de besproken episode ook de briljant beschreven en beklemmende herinneringen aan een communistisch jeugdkamp bevat – hoofdstuk 16 tot en met 23). Het kan de competitie met elk werk aan, wat mij betreft ook met dat van andere meesters uit de wereldliteratuur. Wordt het niet eens tijd voor een vertaling in het Engels van dit boek? Of, bij wijze van opwarmertje voor het buitenlands publiek, een op zichzelf staande vertaling van de Jane Raleigh-episode? Of zou het heiligschennis zijn om het los te maken uit de context van het boek?

Van de koele meren des doods

In de boekenkast van een bevriende familie stuitte ik op een oud exemplaar van Van de koele meren des doods van Frederik van Eeden. Ik sloeg het open en las:

De geschiedenis van een vrouw. Hoe zij zocht de koele meren des Doods, waar verlossing is, en hoe zij die vond.

Haar naam heet ik Hedwig Marga de Fontayne. Een Hollandse vrouw, maar met bloed in zich van uitheemse voorouders.

Mijn nieuwsgierigheid was gewekt. Waarom zocht deze vrouw de dood en hoe vond ze die? Ik besloot het boek een kans te geven. Tijdens de eerste hittegolf van 2006 zocht en vond ik geestelijke verkoeling bij deze roman uit het jaar 1900 .

Van Eeden schrijft in lange, gewichtige volzinnen. Dit ligt niet alleen aan het tijdperk waarin hij schreef. Zijn stijl oogt namelijk veel ouderwetser dan die van Multatuli, die meer dan een generatie eerder geboren werd. Persoonlijk vind ik van Eeden niet onprettig lezen – hedendaagse lezer die ik ben, afgestompt door modieus staccato-proza. Bij deze schrijver krijg je tenminste nog de gelegenheid om tijdens het lezen een ademhaling af te maken, ongehinderd door punten of gedachtestreepjes. Het ritme van de zinnen werkt kalmerend, bijna hypnotiserend, je valt er soms heerlijk bij in slaap…

De schrijver is doodernstig, nogal pretentieus en kent geen enkele ironie. Ach, en wat is daar eigenlijk mis mee? Zijn personages verdienen het om serieus genomen te worden en hij probeert hun leven zo goed mogelijk te doorgronden. Humor acht hij daarbij niet nodig. Toch schoot ik tijdens het lezen vaak in de lach. Die lach begon dan met een soort naar adem happen, meestal als ik een extra lange zin las, met trefzekere ontknoping.

Het verhaal dan nu. Over de jeugd van de hoofdpersoon Hedwig lezen we:

En als kind nog, zij zal negen jaar oud geweest zijn, begon reeds de beklemming van iets geweldigs en ontzettends, zwaar en droef, dat niet weg wou, en dat zij toch stellig zag. Het was in allerlei plaatsen, bij allerlei bezigheden en hechtte zich als een kwade geur aan allerlei dingen.

Ophelia, van Francine Schokker

Ophelia, van Francine Schokker

Is Hedwig dan een tobberig bleekneusje? Zeker niet:

Toch was zij in genen dele een droefgeestig kind, maar spraakzaam en meestal blijde, geneigd tot bezigheid, schrander en onuitputtelijk in ’t vinden van middelen tot spel en vermaak, zelden vermoeid, en niet meer dan anderen stuurs of balorig.

Een gezond Hollands kind dus, met wel wat ‘kleine storingen en verwarringen’ in haar zielsleven. Zij groeit op tot een prachtige jonge vrouw. En niets menselijks is haar vreemd:

Zij had uren en dagen van verslapping, dikwijls, schoon niet altijd samengaande met de tijdmatige veranderingen haars lichaams. […] Dan had zij behoefte aan zoete snoeperij, ook vaak aan een weinigje wijn. […] Bemoeielijkend werkte de ongewone levendigheid harer zienlijke verbeelding. Zij zag, in haar overspannen nachten, lieve gebeurtenissen die zij zou willen doorleven, kleurrijk en in allerfijnste bijzonderheden vóór zich. En deze tonelen, die zij niet vergat, kregen de kracht van voornemens.

Een zinnelijke vrouw met stemmingswisselingen, dat kan bijna niet goed gaan… Een reeks noodlottige gebeurtenissen slaat Hedwig uit het lood. In haar liefdesrelaties faalt ze, ondanks haar goede bedoelingen. De eerste vriendschap met een jongeman, Johan, loopt uit op een tragedie. Hij is een kunstenaar in wording, een jongen die haar de liefde bekent

..met de kleurige juistheid en het verrassend onmiddellijke, in schijnbare onbeholpenheid en verwarring, dat den kunstenaar eigen is, die het verstaat zijn gevoel zonder omweg te laten verzinnelijken.

Bravo. Van zo’n zin leer ik meer dan van een hele cursus creatief schrijven.

Hedwig is ontroerd maar niet verliefd en kan zich er pas toe zetten om de vriendschap te verbreken als het te laat is.

Dan verschijnt Gerard ten tonele, een student in de rechten met de meest zuivere hoofse idealen. Een door en door goed man, die echter een smet op zijn blazoen heeft… De schrijver legt het ons in bedekte termen uit:

Gerard was niet, zoals Hedwig, jong moederloos geworden, maar een slechte zede uit dezen tijd had zijn moeder haar zorg doen overlaten aan kindermeiden en juffrouwen, veelal onverschillig en van geringe beschaving. Een dezer, wulps en roekeloos, had den jongen op achtjarige leeftijd het kwaad der knapen geleerd, en hij had dit zonder arg blijven bedrijven tot bijna volgroeid.

Het is ons 21e-eeuwers niet helemaal duidelijk wat het kwaad der knapen precies behelst, maar we hebben onze vermoedens. Hoe dan ook ligt hier de bron van Gerards lijden, de oorzaak ervan dat hij ‘vroegtijdig en blijvend geschaad’ is. Maar hij is wilskrachtig: ‘hij verwon zijn fout, met de eerste inspanning, zonder wederinstorting’ en is vanaf dat moment een ‘rein man’.

Hedwig en Gerard zien in elkaar een broeder- en zusterziel en gaan dan ook trouwen. Ze begrijpen niet dat ze in wezen onverenigbaar zijn. Van Eeden analyseert het probleem:

‘Op deze wijze nu was bij Gerard, door dezelfde oorzaak, het ziels-evenwicht juist naar den anderen kant verstoord als bij Hedwig. Bij haar was een deel van haar zielswezen door prikkeling overmatig toegenomen, zodat het haar veel te veel vervulde en te belangrijk scheen, bij hem was hetzelfde door plotselinge, heftige terugwerking verkleind en verkommerd, en ver onder natuurlijke verhouding achter-gebleven.’

Inderdaad wordt het huwelijk een mislukking, want ‘van een mysterie openbaarde zich niets’. Met andere woorden, er was ‘de afwezigheid van elke zinnelijke vreugde in hun verkeer’. De echtelieden schikken zich in de situatie en vinden een manier om met elkaar te leven, in toewijding en met respect, maar in wezen onvervuld.

Hedwig maakt dan kennis met de tien jaar oudere pianist en bohémien Ritsaart. In een duizelingwekkende vaart ‘verlieven zij zich’. Voor Hedwig is hij

een man die het leven kende in al zijn volheid en schittering, kunstenaar net zo goed als Johan, heerser over haar schoonste zielsaandoeningen, door zijn muzikaal vermogen, tegelijk voornaam en onderscheiden, en lichamelijk aantrekkelijk zoals zij er nog geen ontmoet had.

Uiteraard kan deze verliefdheid niet naast Hedwigs huwelijk blijven bestaan. Maar de twee beheersen zich zo lang mogelijk: ‘De worsteling vóór den volslagen val duurde een jaar.’ Na de val vertrekt Hedwig met Ritsaart. Maar ook deze nieuwe, ‘niet-geijkte’ verbintenis, die in andere omstandigheden een geslaagde had kunnen zijn, is gedoemd te stranden. Na een gelukkige eerste periode ontstaan er wrijvingen. Van Eeden legt de vinger op de gevoelige plek:

Zodat hij steeds met haar in ’t blinde tastte, niet wetend wanneer hij een vlaag van dodelijke koelheid en stugheid, of wel een plotseling herbloeien van de teerste en geurigste bloemen harer passie wachten kon. Den sleutel die op den schrijn van haar tresoren paste had hij niet, zijn luk-raak beproeven was te vergeefs en hij gewende zich met onverschilligheid de onberekenbare wisseling van haar teer en ijlwielend gemoed af te wachten, tóch nooit de uitwerking van harde of vriendelijke woorden stellig voorziend. Dit deed haar mening, dat hij wreed en ongevoelig was, toenemen, evenals de zijne dat vrouwen geen redelijkheid of standvastigheid kennen.

Er is kennelijk weinig veranderd in honderd jaar.

Het is duidelijk dat Hedwig hard op weg is om een ‘gevallen vrouw’ te worden. Inderdaad zinkt zij diep. Hier houd ik op, omdat ik het boek niet helemaal wil samenvatten. Maar ik zeg nog dat zij, zoals de eerste zin van het boek aankondigt, verlossing vindt, en dat deze al vóór de dood komt. (Overigens gaat het boek slechts deels over doodsverlangen. Waarschijnlijk vond de schrijver Van de koele meren… gewoon een stoere titel. Gelijk heeft hij).

Nee, geen vrolijke geschiedenis, maar ook geen inktzwarte tragedie. Het is de levensgeschiedenis van een vrouw die wat meer pech heeft gehad dan de meesten van ons. En niet, zoals Van Eeden enkele van zijn critici terechtwijst, ‘de zielkundige studie van een min of meer pathologisch geval’ […] Dat de hoofdpersoon een ‘ziekelijk’ wezen zou zijn, van aard en aanleg, ontkent hij. Wel is zij, door uiterst fijne en edele bewerktuiging, veel meer aan schadelijke invloeden blootgesteld, dan de grovere, gemiddelde mens.


Een fijne en edele bewerktuiging, je zult er maar mee geboren worden. Rust zacht, lieve Hedwig.

Tot slot enkele mooie Oud-Hollandse woorden die ik tegenkwam:


En de grappigste:
Bijvalsgedruis (applaus)

Tim Krabbé’s random word

I once gave myself the assignment of inventing a completely random word. Completely random, is that possible? And all of a sudden, there it was: Battoowoo Greekgreek (Tim Krabbé, The Rider). 

The word Battoowoo Greekgreek (in Dutch: Batüwü Griekgriek) has, since the day Tim Krabbé entrusted it to paper, acquired a modest fame. Hundreds of thousands of readers of The Rider cherish the word. Maarten Ducrot confessed, when he was still a professional rider: ‘Whenever I hit absolute rock bottom I always think of those immortal words from The Rider by Tim Krabbé – Battoowoo Greekgreek – and everything seems just fine again’. So the word has prospered pretty well for a modest random word. About time to examine if it is random at all! But first I want to stress that the result of this examination could, of course, never harm the magical, almost divine quality of the word. That goes almost without saying.

Even so, there is something at stake here. The random word is, within Krabbé’s oeuvre, a miniature of an important theme. Many of his characters want to escape the monotony of their existence by doing something random or unpredictable. Not just as a revolt against ‘society’ but as a revolt against being under submission of their own instincts and drives – or even more fundamental forces of the universe. The main character of The Vanishing jumps from a third-story balcony when still an adolescent, thereby proving he is no slave of his own fear of heights. He wants to be able to do anything, according to the ‘arbitrariness of his will’. Compared to this, the creation of a random word is a pretty modest deed of anarchy. Has the writer Krabbé accomplished what his characters so often can?

The rider

The Rider

A first fundamental problem emerges: the randomness of an isolated, short sequence of numbers or letters is hard to assess. Only with longer sequences can anything be concluded in a statistically significant way. Look at the following extreme case. From the two-digit binary sequence 01, we cannot tell if it was generated by randomness of an underlying system. Fortunately, Batüwü Griekgriek is not such an extreme case, and it can be assessed to a certain degree.

According to the mathematical definition, randomness means absence of pattern. A series of numbers is random if it has no regularities. This implies that the series can not be abbreviated or rewritten as a shorter series. The technical term for this is informational incompressibility. A series that systematically contains repetitions (111111), alternations (010101) or symmetries (001100) – to name but a few elementary examples of pattern – is not random. So Krabbé’s word seems to disqualify in this respect: it contains a repetition of the letter sequence: griek (greek), which is even an existing word in its own right.

But hold on. In a random sequence of binary characters, surely a repetition of two zeroes or two ones would be no problem. So why disqualify the double occurrence of the syllable ‘greek’?

To answer this, we must first know from which ‘word container the word is drawn’. Which properties has the set of possible words? In case of number series we assume that all digits from 0 till 9 are allowed, in every possible order. In the case of words this is more complicated. The smallest parts might not be separate letters, but syllables. Related to this matter, is a more or less stringent criterion of pronounceability. A letter sequence like jklaafgyy lkolj does not qualify as a word candidate. Let’s assume that Krabbé’s word container was restricted to what is pronounceable. Note that the set of pronounceable words is bigger that the set of representative words, which by the way would be far more difficult to define. Regardless of exact definition, common sense of native Dutch speakers tells that Batüwü Griekgriek is not a representative Dutch word.

So we have seen that in the container of random words no total letter anarchy prevails. Considering this, the repetition ‘griek’ is already less unlikely: it could be a single repetition and not a – very unlikely – fivefold repetition on letter level. So is the repetition just as likely as the repetition of, for example, the number 6 in a decimal series? No, not even close, because there are many more syllables than decimal numbers. But the exact probability depends, again, on the content of the ‘word container’. Is the repetition frequency of syllables therein a faithful reflection of the repetition frequency of syllables in dutch words? (I guess those are predominantly onomatopoeias and ‘primal words’ like mama). Or is the likelihood of repetition a blind ‘one devided by the number of syllables’ in the container? In the latter case, the chances of a repetition of ‘griek’ would be very small, since there are thousands of syllables.

So because of the repetition, Batüwü Griekgriek is not a very representative random word. I think Krabbé knows this and I suspect that he has chosen the repetition for a different reason. Research shows the following: if people are asked to invent a random sequence of binary numbers, they shun repetition more than they should. The chance that they write a 0 after a 1, is 0.6 instead of 0.5. This is a manifestation of what is called the gambler’s fallacy: the false notion that the roulette wheel has a bias towards variation/alternation. I think that Krabbé has deliberately not wanted to fall in this trap. And he has even added a little extra on top of his flagrant repetition. He seems to say provocatively: ‘I know, this word contains a repetition. If you guys think it couldn’t be random, go lose your money in the casino’.

But maybe I am on the wrong track. Maybe the writer has truly written the first word that came to mind on one of his bicycle rides. That’s what he suggests in the quote. This spontaneous creation explains the repetition in a different manner. Whenever people invent a fantasy rime or a nonsensical little song, repetition and alternation occur very often (tatee tom tom tatee tom). In the context of this article: these words are in a container that has a lot of repetition and alternation in it. So in this context of spontaneous language production, the word Batüwü Griekgriek ís a pretty representative random word.

Was Krabbé sincere when he wrote: ‘And all of a sudden, there it was.’? Wouldn’t it be to cheat his readers if he had considered many word candidates, altered a letter here and there, until he had finally found a word that met his standards? On the other hand, the ultimate deed of Krabbé-esque randomness is not one that comes easy. It often takes his characters careful planning. And isn’t it also essential to the process of writing? To ponder and rewrite endlessly, until finally something apparently spontaneous is on paper?

The Rider, by Tim Krabbé on Goodreads


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