David Colmer’s Choice: Manon Uphoff and Basuki Gunawan
Every month, a translator of Dutch into English gives literary tips by answering two questions: which translated book by a Flemish or Dutch author should everyone read? And, which book absolutely deserves an English translation? To get publishers excited, an excerpt has already been translated. This time you will read the choice of David Colmer, who has won many awards, including the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Brockway Award.
Must-read: ‘Falling Is Like Flying’ by Manon Uphoff
© photo by Celine Simons
There are books that are disturbing, fascinating, gripping and horrifying all at once, whose reading becomes an experience rather than the consumption of something external, and Manon Uphoff’s novel, Falling Is Like Flying, is a prime example of this genre. More than just a memoir of abuse, it’s an autobiography of a writer, the story of the development of a personal mythology and an analysis of the psychological processes of victimisation and resistance.
Rather than voyeuristic or monotonous descriptions of sexual abuse, Uphoff prefers to insert brief but shocking details into her accounts of the child’s nighttime world where her father becomes the Minotaur. ‘There was a father and a monster (and a father in whose arms I could hide from that monster).’ This is not the relentlessness of an expose but the unforgettable horror of something glimpsed in the dark.
In Sam Garrett’s characteristically vivid translation, Uphoff’s language is rich and rewarding. Besides the main character, the book follows her sisters and particularly her much older half sisters, who are trapped in patterns of abuse and the constraints of gender and class in a society that seems to have blocked all their exits. With the exorcism of the final chapter, ‘Witches’ Sabbath (Grand Guignol)’, the surviving siblings take their revenge, but with full knowledge of what has been lost, and what lives in them yet.
Uphoff has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the Netherlands’ finest writers, especially of short stories, but broke through to wider critical acclaim and a larger readership in 2019 with the publication of the Dutch original of Falling Is Like Flying. Despite an insightful and appreciative review in the TLS, the 2021 English edition has not yet received the attention it deserves. Seek it out now, you won’t be sorry.
Manon Uphoff, Falling Is Like Flying, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Pushkin Press, 2021, 192 pages
Read our review HERE.
To be translated: ‘Winarta’ by Basuki Gunawan
Basuki Gunawan was born in the Dutch East Indies in 1929 and received his early education in Dutch. After WWII, he joined the Tentara Pelajar (‘Student Army’) to fight the Dutch attempt to recolonise Indonesia. Later he travelled to the Netherlands to study. A bout of tuberculosis led to his admission to the Netherlands Student Sanatorium, where he wrote Winarta in Dutch for his fellow patients.
An existentialist novella of the Indonesian revolutionary war, the book is an evocative and disturbing account of the eponymous main character’s downward spiral into increasingly fatalistic violence. Initially motivated by a desire to avenge his parents’ murder, his actions become more and more an expression of his own death wish.
As a manuscript Winarta received an honorary mention in 1953 for the prestigious Reina Prinsen Geerligs Prize and was serialised in a literary magazine the following year. Leading publisher Querido opened negotiations for a book publication before abandoning the project in 1955, explicitly citing political tensions between Indonesia and the Netherlands as the reason.
Rediscovered and published in book form for the first time in 2022, the novella has enjoyed wide acclaim since, not just as a representative of an absent perspective in Dutch literature, but also as a literary gem worthy of comparison to Camus or the early Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Indonesian and German translations are in production.
Basuki Gunawan, Winarta, Alfabet, 2022, 128 pages
Excerpt from ‘Winarta’, translated by David Colmer
Immediately upon arriving, the tenant and the man with the birthmark, who was a coachman, began digging.
I watched tensely while they shovelled up the red soil and threw it to one side. Although the earth gave off a fresh smell, there was something suffocating about it too. It was almost like the forest around the sanatorium. Later I would often think of my parents when I caught the smell of turned earth.
The monotonous digging bored me. It occurred to me that this work wasn’t really in proportion to the results. I had enough imagination to picture more or less what my parents looked like. Maybe the ward super was right. There really was nothing to be gained from it. Disturbing the rest of the dead couldn’t be good either.
I told the two men to stop working. I didn’t need to see my parents.
They looked up and laid their shovels to one side, the coachman staring at me with an expression of silent reproach.
I felt guilty. For him the day had now been wasted. His kindness had made his day pointless. I thought of the incident in front of my house when he had been the only one willing to show me the grave. I’d said then that I wanted to see my parents. Perhaps that was why he’d come. He wanted to see the bodies himself. That must be the reason he was looking at me so accusingly now.
I asked him if he’d seen the bodies already. He said “yes”.
I looked at him with surprise. The reproach must have had been due to the pointlessness of what he’d been doing after all. I thought of my studies. Knowing that something is pointless really is horrific. It is almost unbearable.
I told the men I’d changed my mind. The coachman smiled and resumed digging. The tenant kept a perfectly straight face, obviously not caring one way or the other.
Finally they were finished. I saw two swathed figures lying next to each other at the bottom of the grave. According to custom, they had been wrapped in white cloth instead of being put into coffins. The soil had stained it light brown. Pak Jupri wanted to hoist them up out of the grave, but I told him that wasn’t necessary. He opened the shrouds. At the sight of my parents I felt a strong urge to vomit. A sharp smell stabbed through my nose and into my brain. I stared at them intently. My parents’ faces were like those of children who have been playing in the dirt. They were covered with black splotches I took for bloodstains. For the rest, their faces were intact. Their mouths were open. Father had the face of someone who is amazed at something. Mother looked like she did when pleased by the success of one of her anecdotes. It was like she was chuckling.