Many thanks to Cath who has been so kind writing several posts for my Reading the Netherlands project. It has made my own reading so much richer and added a different and unique perspective on Dutch Literature. She offers an insider's view which no matter how many books I read will never quite see or understand the nuances in exactly the same way, so to read what she has to say about these books has been a treat for me and for you, I hope, as well. I've saved her last guest post for the very end and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have.
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Living in a language
When after a car accident reading all of a sudden proved to be difficult ‘My Father’s Notebook’ was, after months of practicing, the first novel I finished. In hindsight I know how Kader Abdolah’s often poetic style, greatly helped. Yet there is more to it. Finally the joy of reading was there again and while difficulty and effort remained they somehow moved into the background.
My Father’s Notebook is the story of Aga Akbar who has written a book in his self-developed script. After his death the book is delivered to his son Ishmael living in the Netherlands as a political refugee. Ishmael starts to decipher the book.
‘Aga Akbar was born a deaf mute. The family, especially his mother, communicated with him in a simple sign language. A language that consisted of about a hundred signs. A language that worked best at home, with the family, though the neighbors also understood it to some extent. But the power of that language manifested itself most in the communication between mother and Aga, and later between Aga and Ishmael.’
Iranian Kader Abdolah (1954) was born in Arak. He had already published short stories when he fled his country in 1985, after his involvement in the opposition to Khomeini was discovered. He came to The Netherlands in 1988 as a political refugee. After five years of self-study he published his first book of short stories in Dutch in 1993. In 2006 he was writer in residence at Leiden University.
Kader Abdolah’s style is both simple and lyrical. ‘I want to make the river of ancient Persian poetry flow into the sea of Dutch literature’ he says, and ‘one doesn’t learn love for a language in a language- course, that’s why I started reading Dutch literature. When I discovered poet Rutger Kopland I found the magic of the Dutch language. His poems are short. He grabs you with a few words. His lines stay with you for months. That was the power I was looking for. I couldn’t yet write in Dutch but tried, in his style, to voice my homesickness. I wrote: I go to town. I buy a parrot. The parrot says: Can I go home? Do you feel the power of that last sentence? That’s the magic.’
While reflecting on his particular place in the Dutch literary landscape I thought of Salman Rushdie writing in his essay ‘Imaginary Homelands’ (1982): ‘It may be argued that the past is a country from which we all have emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me self-evidently true, but I suggest that the writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools. But however ambiguous and shifting this ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy.’
Maybe Kader Abdolah expresses it even better himself: ‘I am not Dutch, and not a foreigner either, I am an outsider. A position I will always have. I have taken the old key of the house with me, but it will never fit again. The Dutch language is my homeland now.’
How happy I am he is living there.
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I wish all my reading projects went as smoothly and satisfyingly as this one has. I'll be back later this weekend to wrap things up a bit. I was afraid I would not find enough books to read, enough variety, but the problem now is that I have added too many new Dutch authors and books to my reading stacks, including now Kader Abdolah. Always a good problem to have, however.