Repatriated is set in a seaside town in the Netherlands, sometime after the end of World War II and the decolonisation of Indonesia. It is set around the time of the North Sea flood of 1953, and provides a glimpse of life during a time when religion was still somewhat of a strong hold in the Netherlands, when everyone feared the A-bomb and the H-bomb, during the Cold War when a large part of society was still trying to recover from the Second World War.
Whether he is at home, drinking coffee in the most expensive hotel in town, or at sea training the horses for the rescue boat, Repatriated shows us a father, Mr. Java, who drills his son for future war, teaching him how to survive on “headpower”, alluding to strategies he picked up during his time in a prisoner-of-war camp in Indonesia, during the Japanese occupation, and at the time of the war for Indonesian independence. Mr. Java is bitter about the losses he suffered during the war, he writes letters to officials and politicians trying to reclaim what he has lost in the colonies. And however hard he tries, he cannot seem to shake his past: the war, his former life, and his lost prospects. His wife, with her three daughters from a previous marriage, try to get by with the utmost frugality, providing sceptic commentary on any purchase Mr. Java makes, and any of the stories he tells. Meanwhile, the boy, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, threatens to drown in his father’s growing obsessions.
In his straightforward prose, consisting of short sentences, Adriaan van Dis manages to evoke a sharp, dark, and evocative portrait of a dysfunctional postwar family. The father holds the whole family in his grasp, with his manias, obsessions, and outbursts. The wife and sisters try to keep to a sense of normality by desperately holding on to orderly rules. All five of them often seem to refer to their time in Indonesia as the thing that made them into what they are today. None of them seem to notice that in their obsession with past life, and their refusal to mention the Indies, Indonesia, or Sukarno, the boy is left to feel hopelessly alone, since he does not share their previous experiences. Nor is he as strong and independent as his half-sisters are by then. The family, its past, and especially his father’s obsessions overshadow him, and keep him from comfortably growing towards a sense of self. As is revealed towards the end of the book:
- he polishes the house until it’s a house of mirrors, making it whole and gleaming again. He admires himself in the lake of beeswax… he’s never seen himself so handsome and brown before, and tall, he seems to have grown… And then he jumps, turning around with a jerk, looking for the shadow he expects to find behind him, the menacing shadow of Mr Java… But of course it’s not there, the shoes that walk the line so angrily at home are shuffling around Rosehill.
I was pleasantly surprised by how fast a read Repatriated was. Van Dis’ prose is readable and powerful at the same time. His style, which might be called fragmentary as his sentences are often so short, is one that I do not always enjoy; however, in this case it helps to pull you into the story right away. Van Dis manages to evoke the sense of displacement and fear the boy experiences from the beginning, building up towards the end of the book.
One of the things I thoughts most strong in Van Dis’ book was the manner in which he managed to portray the experience in the Netherlands for returning colonials after the Second World War. He hints towards the silence on the topic of the suffering in Indonesia, in favour of a history of heroism and suffering in the Netherlands during World War II and a shameful denial of colonialism. Van Dis did a very good job in evoking that part of Dutch history, without turning the book into an outright criticism of it. However, I do wonder how much of that theme would translate to an international audience, which is perhaps less familiar with that chapter in our national history and might miss a few of the subtler hints. Nevertheless, the fact that Van Dis managed to evoke this setting so well is one of the reasons I am looking forward to reading more of his work. I know he has written a few more books on the subject.
The only real complaint I had were the last two pages of the book. While the second-to-last chapter was almost perfect, that last one was a bit too open-ended and sudden for me.
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