The Great Untranslated: Raadsels van het rund (Enigmas of the Cow) by Jacq Firmin Vogelaar

The 1970s were the miraculous decade of American literary postmodernism when some of the wildest and most daring novels were published: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father (1975) Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), John Barth’s LETTERS (1979). Judging by the odds and ends of scarcely available information, Dutch writer Jacq Firmin Vogelaar’s wacko creation Raadsels van het rund (1978) belongs to the same paradigm as those novels, and had it been translated into English, we might now be mentioning it in the same breath as the metafictional monstrosities of Barth and Coover.

The protagonist of the novel is architect Ekke who is assigned the task of creating outlandish machines, using a manual written by Leonardo da Vinci. The machine construction, an apt metaphor for producing texts at the heyday of postmodernism, goes inevitably awry with each attempt, and one starts wondering if Ekke was fooled into a senseless yet very sophisticated  wild-goose chase whose only purpose is to show the futility of  encapsulating  the exponentially growing amounts of knowledge. The elusive substance “forza” mentioned in the great Florentine’s document is the philosopher’s stone of Ekke’s neo-alchemical pursuit, and, for all we know, it might stand for the grand signifier itself. J.F. Vogelaar’s novel is a mash-up of various genres, at different points assuming the guises of the historical novel,  the essay, and the encyclopedia, complete with an appendix featuring profiles of great representatives of the Renaissance. The enthusiasts of Dutch artist Constant  Nieuwenhuys’s concept of New Babylon (an anti-capitalist city built of inter-linked mega-structures above the surface of the earth for the leisurely activities of  Homo Ludens) will be delighted to find in the novel a critical examination of this idea. Perplexing, meandering, and erudite, Raadsels van het rund has a lot to offer both content-wise, and linguistically. The fact that some of the Dutch critics branded the novel as “unreadable” is a good sign. The only English-language description of the novel I was able to dredge, and to which I am mostly indebted for writing this post, is Anthony Merten’s article Postmodern Elements in Postwar Dutch Fiction. Let me quote this brief summary of the novel, which is likely to make you yearn for its translation as it made yours truly:

The novel stages in various ways all the themes that are prominent in the debate on modernity (technology, progress, power, the role of the intellectual), but always in relation to rewritings of texts that are borrowed from the historiography of the modern period and from various representatives of modern literature (from Beckett, Flaubert, Musil, Valéry to Gaddis and Patchen). […] it is a historical novel in a reverse sense, a novel that tries to present its own history. Ekke’s assignment reflects the ways in which the collected textual materials are processed. Time and again these are put into a spotlight so that the ‘forza’ may be tracked down. Next to these eight chapters we find in the novel an appendix in which the profiles of five ‘contemporaries’ are presented: Leonardo, Faust, Paracelsus, Jan Hus and Heinrich Anton M. – the last one a schizophrenic who also constructed machines – and whose activities refer to the so-called ‘art brut’ to which the novel will every now and then refer. […] References to the mannerist art of the 16th and 17th centuries evoke a picture of the historical genre as an (alchemist) laboratory in which chemicals (in this case historical documents) form compounds, are decomposed, melted down, and analysed. […] The book itself is written out of a sense of possibilities rather than out of a sense of what’s real. In this way there is a relation with Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften.


Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon. Image Source.

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6 Responses to The Great Untranslated: Raadsels van het rund (Enigmas of the Cow) by Jacq Firmin Vogelaar

  1. Wim says:

    Holy cow! That looks incredible. It seems Vogelaar wrote quite a few novels but also essays, stories, literary criticism, poetry and translations to Dutch from a wide range of authors and thinkers, including Marx, Foucault, Benjamin, Adorno, Levi-Strauss, etc.. I’ve never read him but I will see what I can find (Raadsels van het rund seems quite obscure from a quick Google search).
    BTW the name Vogelaar (a pseudonym) is quite funny, the verb “Vogelen” is a colloquial term for having sex, mostly in use in Flanders (the other meaning of the verb Vogelen is hobbyist birdwatching) so the name means something like “Fucker/Birdwatcher”

  2. Wim says:

    Hey! I did end up reading this book in the summer of 2018 but I forgot to comment here. It’s indeed an absolute mammoth and really fulfilled my expectations of it being a “cryptic forgotten masterpiece”. The book is actually the second part of a trilogy called Operaties (Operations). The first one is Kaleidiafragmenten, the third one is Alle Vlees (also snatched this one in a second hand bookstore in Antwerp but still have to find Kaleidiafragmenten). As the title of the trilogy suggests, one thing that struck me about “Raadsels van het rund” was the use of template based composition and procedural writing, definitely constructing “language machines”. It’s definitely out there and among other things contains fragments of the author’s Dutch adaptation of Finnegans Wake (at the time of the novel’s publication FW hadn’t been translated to Dutch). It contains a lot of intertextuality that went unnoticed until i read about it afterwards and for example Arno Schmidt is even explicitly mentioned by name. The writer and the book actually have several dutch language PhD/Master theses devoted to them, so for lovers of these “Easter eggs” there is plenty of great stuff to find. Also amusing to me is that it’s written in “Progressieve Spelling”, which is from the time when official Dutch was not formalized into a single spelling system but there was the choice between something quite close to contemporary Dutch spellingas the preferred spelling and something that is more phonetic, especially in case of loan words. E.g. instead of “communistische” there is “kommunistiese” or instead of “context” “kontekst” etc

    great background material were these 2:
    ‘De woorden losmaken en een mobiel vervaardigen’De machine en de literaire ‘tegenmachine’ in de Rasterliteratuur en in J.F. Vogelaars Raadsels van het rund (Camille Bourgeus)
    Sluiproutes en dwaalwegen: aspecten van een liminale poetica toegelicht aan de hand van het werk van jacq firmin vogelaar (Anthony Mertens)

    • Thanks for this great write-up! I didn’t know it was a part of a trilogy. A good start would be a reissue of the original, I guess. I’m not sure that there will be an English translation of this novel any time soon.

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