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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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The Great Untranslated: De Zondvloed (The Deluge) by Jeroen Brouwers

DezondvloedWhen you hear “the Great Dutch novel”, what is it that first comes to your mind? Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven? Willem Frederik Hermans’ The Dark Room of Damocles? Or, perhaps, Hugo Claus’ The Sorrow of Belgium? but that would be the Great Flemish Novel, wouldn’t it? Anyway, there is this partially autobiographic novel by Jeroen Brouwers, whose title could be translated as The Flood or The Deluge, that has kept fascinating and repelling the Dutch language readers since it was published in 1988, and, by virtue (or, rather, vice) of being untranslated, has stayed under the radar of the English speaking public. Some of its readers do believe that this novel has all the rights to literary  greatness and that its author should be awarded the Nobel Prize for it. How come, many of you, readers of this blog, have neither heard of this novel, nor about its author? Well, try to find something in English on him, and you’ll be lucky if you dredge up at least a couple of pages worth of useful information. However, based on the few titbits I’ve been able to dig up, I assure you that The Deluge is a worthy candidate for my rubric The Great Untranslated.

The protagonist of the novel is a bibulous, mysanthropic, sexually frustrated writer who at the symbolic age of 33 flees society to live in a ramshackle cabin in the woods. The story of his life is told in flashbacks, and in general lines, it follows the biography of Brouwers himself. We learn about the main character’s childhood in Indonesia at the time of the Second World War and immediately after it. Besides the hardships experienced by his family in a Japanese internment camp, there are happy memories of the time spent in the post-war Balikpapan which is not meant to last as the boy moves to the Netherlands where he is immersed into the suffocating ambiance of regimentation and strict discipline reigning in a boarding school for boys. While at school, the boy conjures up an image of his beloved, a Beatrice of sorts, that he will be trying to encounter most of his adult life. He does meet a woman he thinks he loves; they get married and have two children.  But, eventually, the writer abandons his family that has turned out to be anything but the ideals he has cherished since childhood. Angst-ridden and disillusioned, he becomes a hermit in the woods, drowning his sorrows in gin.

There seems to be nothing striking about the plot, but that is not the main thing in this novel. The Dutch reviewers seem to concur that the imagery and the language are just jaw-dropping. There are also various mythological and classical motifs woven into the fabric of the narrative such as Orpheus’ quest for Eurydice and Dante’s journey through Hell. The narrative itself is not chronological, but jumps between different time frames, and when it comes to reminiscing about things past, Brouwers appears to reach truly Proustian heights.

Returning to the initial question of this post, I cannot promise you that Jeroen Brouwers’ hefty tome is as great as it looks to be based on several secondary sources. You will have to find it out for yourselves. And in order for that to transpire, obviously, this novel should be made available in English. You know, several years ago I would have been very pessimistic on this account, but not anymore. Just recently we have seen the English translations of such perennial preterites as Adam Buenosayres and Prae. Arno Schmidt’s untranslatable Bottom’s Dream, albeit with delay, is for sure to be published by Dalkey Archive at some point, perhaps this year. All these developments give us hope to see The Deluge translated sooner than we might think. Let me know if  any information regarding this becomes available.

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