My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"United Europe [...] That's the dream. Why shouldn't it come about some day? All together and still apart? [...] United above all troubles?"
Many years ago a dear friend of mine highly recommended Janwillem van de Wetering’s novels. I had tried to read The Corpse on the Dike and was able to get through just a few pages: I could not follow the bizarrely structured text. About 30 years later I decided to try again and chose a different book - The Rattle-Rat (1985). This time I managed to finish the book only because of my superhuman patience and dedication. I admit the plot is interesting and many characterizations and situations are presented with nice insights and a nice sense of humor but I will not attempt any other book by the author. The problem is that while I understand all the words and almost all sentences in the novel, I do not understand many paragraphs. Mr. van de Wetering’s prose constantly leaves me wondering whose point of view he is presenting at any given time. It seems that frames of reference change frequently within the same paragraph. The fault is not with the translation as I understand the author wrote himself two versions of the book: the Dutch one and the English one.
An Amsterdam Police constable notices a floating fire, something burning in the waters of Amsterdam Inner Harbor. The next morning Adjutant Grijpstra and Sergeant De Gier of the Murder Brigade have to deal with a corpse burned beyond recognition, found in a blackened aluminum rowboat. The autopsy indicates that it might be a laborer's body but the expensive dental work does not quite match. Soon the suspicions as to the identity of the victim focus on a Frisian man and the criminal plot gains an accompanying motif of juxtaposing the northernmost province of Frisia (Friesland) with the rest of the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular.
Many interesting subplots contribute to the story: sheep trade, Chinese immigrants, heroin dealing, prostitution, Hong Kong vs. Singapore triads, and the rare disease of trigeminal neuralgia. Two threads make the strongest impression: Hylkje Hilarius, a Frisian police female corporal, offers a convincing characterization of a modern liberated woman. And of course we have the pet rat mentioned in the title. The rodent plays quite a prominent role in the plot.
There is a lot of humor in the novel, most of it based on contrasting the good Frisians and bad Amsterdammers who wallow in filth. We are told about 167 times that the unnamed commissaris, Grijpstra’s and de Gier’s boss, was born in a city of Joure (city of 13,000 people) in Frisia. There are some funny sexual references like:
"Why does your wife copulate in a cupboard?" Hylkje asked. "So that she may debauch herself in secret."We have quite a “socially progressive” ending, fitting the image of the Dutch as some of the most progressive people on Earth. And we have this wonderful passage, quoted in the epigraph, about the dream of united Europe: the dream that came true for a while and now is in grave danger of being trampled by nationalistic fervor.
I like most things that are Dutch, I love my memories of Amsterdam, and the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom is my most favorite writer. If only I could understand the paragraphs written by Mr. van de Wetering!
Two and a quarter stars.
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