Karel Glastra van Loon
A Father's Affair
by Keith Taylor
Every other year for the last twenty years or more, there has been a Dutch writer-in-residence in town for a semester. Invited by the U-M English department and supported by the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literary Works in Amsterdam, the visiting writer has had to teach only one fairly small writing workshop and give a reading. Although all of the Dutch writers-in-residence have had wonderful skill with English, most of them have not had books available in our language. So, as interesting as they have been, they have passed through Ann Arbor without being noticed by the larger community.
Karel van Loon, this year's Dutch writer-in-residence, is worth noticing, and he does have a book in translation. Van Loon has traveled widely around the world, writing often about Asia and the wars there, in addition to making films, writing about rock 'n' roll, and finishing best-selling novels. His 1999 novel, recently translated into English as A Father's Affair, has sold almost 300,000 copies in the Netherlands (in proportion to the population, that is the equivalent of 10 million copies in the U.S.), has been turned into a film, and has been translated into twenty-nine languages.
The plot is fairly simple, but it is centered on an elemental situation. Armin Minderhout has a thirteen-year-old son by his first wife, who died ten years before the novel begins. After having difficulty conceiving a child with his second wife, he is told that he is sterile and has always been sterile. The boy cannot be his child. Armin sets out to find the father, even though he has few clues and no one to ask. Although a decidedly modern man with the sophisticated urbanity we like to associate with European intellectuals, he is possessed and driven by jealousy. Before he resolves his questions, his jealousy almost destroys the extraordinary relationship he has with his wife and son.
But the plot provides only a small part
of the pleasures of A Father's Affair. The book has an easy reference to theology, is often wonderfully sexy, and has finely observed descriptions of Dutch landscapes. Late in the book, Armin and the boy who is and is not his son go out to the Dutch islands for a few days of fishing and bird-watching:
. . . on the islands, nature is still important. Whether the tide is out or in. Whether the wind is pounding the water against the dike, or against the dunes. Whether the moon is bright enough to go looking for owls. Whether the lapwing is brooding. Whether the brent geese have come back, or just left for their nesting grounds in western Siberia.
One of the successes of A Father's Affair is that its narrative can have passages like this, yet the pacing never seems to slow or lose its focus on Armin's desperate search.
Karel van Loon reads from his novel at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Tuesday, February 17.
[Originally published in February, 2004.]