King of Tuzla – Arnold Jansen op de Haar
Holland Park Press, 2010
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher
When I received a review request for King of Tuzla from the publisher, I was very excited. First of all, I had seen Holland Park Press appear on several sites, and the publisher looked intriguing: a press devoted to translating Dutch literature to English, how could I not be interested? Second, the premise of this story: about a soldier waiting to be sent on a mission and yet slowly questioning the army, sounded good. And three, especially number three, the fact that this story deals with the war in former Yugoslavia, the war that is such a loaded part of Dutch history because of the fall of Srebrenica, had me intrigued. Here is a topic that has hardly been written about in literature, and it is tackled by someone who was part of the army that was sent out to former Yugoslavia.. And so, I gladly accepted this review request.
The characters in the story are very well-drawn. Tijmen, the main character, is on the one hand, your typical soldier: tough and adventurous and at times a little coarse. On the other hand, he is shy, withdrawn, loves literature and is never really able to be himself in the army environment. I liked how the story highlighted the conflicted feelings Tijmen felt in this situation. There is also a large cast of characters: other army commanders, who are either friends of Tijmen or are mainly competing with him who gets the best mission. More importantly, in between the story of Tijmen are short sketches of the lives of seemingly random persons living in Bosnia, people affected by the war. At first, I wasn’t sure if this approach worked, as these short sketches seemed to interrupt the story of Tijmen, but in a sense it complements Tijmen’s sense of alienation from the army nicely, since it seems to say that in situations of war, everyone loses parts of him or herself.
However, while the characterisation in the story worked for me, King of Tuzla was a disappointing read for me. I have struggled with these comments for a while now, especially since the book was a review copy and I truly hope Holland Park Press will take off and do well. But I believe I cannot review this book without remarking on my problems with it.
First of all, and I find this to be the least important and most superficial of my critiques, there is the look of the book. Somehow, the cover and the overall format of the book, give it a self-published feel. Something that I fear will not help sell it.
Second, I have a feeling that there was something more to this book. Something that desperately wanted to be found, to get out, to be heard, but never really did. For example, when Tijmen, in the latter half of the book, remarks to a friend after leaving the army, that:
“The war at Tuzla Airbase and later in the ‘Thumb’ was a forgotten war,” he said, as the waitress brought two new glasses of wheat beer. “Even then, you lot in the enclave got all the attention, and now, now the enclave has fallen, even more so.”
I couldn’t help but feel that here was the crux of the matter. The thing that frustrated Tijmen (and Arnold Jansen op de Haar) most, which made the author write this book. But there it is, in only a small remark, and it soon becomes forgotten again.
Third, and most importantly, there is the style of the book. Or rather, the translation. It really got in the way of the flow of the narrative. The style of the book in general is fragmentary, something you either dislike or like. Personally, I had trouble connecting with it in this case. However, the major problem is to be found in the clunky and often faulty translation. There have been a number of posts on this, most remarkably this one by Lisa Hill who criticises the translation and this one by Stu defending it.
I have to say that even though I know Stu knows the Dutch language, I do not agree with him that this is an easy-to-read translation. At first I wondered whether it was because I am Dutch that I thought the style, grammar and word choice often felt “wrong”. Maybe it was simply because of my own, often faulty, English, that I felt this way. But soon, I couldn’t help wondering what the original Dutch sentence had been that made the translator choose this particular word, turn of phrase or this grammar.
“He had not been able to share with anyone the seeds of doubt sown in him during the reconnaissance mission about the role he was playing.”
Stu says in his post that he felt the translator tried to stick as close as possible to the Dutch language. And yes, one could argue that he does. However, the sentences don’t become more readable because of this choice. Rather, it distanced me from the story. And I know Dutch, it is my first language. So I can translate the English back to Dutch, and try to grasp what was being said. I can also see, that at times, a sentence was translated word-for-word from the Dutch, not considering the change of sequence in words that occurs when you translate from Dutch to English:
“The Spijker district was deserted. Only in the Turkish coffee house was it busy and cosy.”
Yes, we would say that “Alleen in het Turkse koffiehuis was het druk en gezellig”, however, correct me if I am wrong, in English, you would be more likely to exchange “was it” for “it was”, or leave the “in” out, as in: “Only the Turkish coffee house was busy”.
There are also the words that have a double meaning to the Dutch, but only a literal one for the English. And the use of military language and abbreviations can be quite confusing as well.
Part of this must be the fault of the translator, especially since, when you translate the sentences back to Dutch, they do make sense. And you know, because some of those mistakes, are so easily recognised because I make them myself. However, I feel bad for simply remarking on the faults of the translator, since he seems to have translated quite a few Dutch novels, including work by Harry Mulisch and Willem Elsschot. At least part of it should have been resolved by an editor. And who knows, maybe the Dutch original is supposed to read like this?
I feel horrible for making all these remarks about the book, and I do wish I could have liked it better. However, the overall feeling I was left with was that this could have been a wonderful story, that it had all the ingredients to be just that, but that it needs a little more work, from either the author, the translator or an editor, to really make it a good read.