Literary adventures in Amsterdam

This week saw me heading to Amsterdam. I went there at the invitation of international bestselling Belgian author Annelies Verbeke. She has been the writer in residence, or Vrije Schrijver, at VU University this year and her final duty in the role was to organise and deliver the Abraham Kuyper Lezing, an annual public lecture built around a theme of the curator’s choosing.

This year’s title was De taal van de wereld (The language of the world). As part of this, Verbeke was keen for me to speak about my journey through international literature.

It was a great pleasure to be back in Amsterdam. It’s a city very close to my heart: I went there to decompress after I finished my year of reading the world back in January 2013 and the main character of my first novel Beside Myself spends her happiest time there. I caught myself half-wondering if I might bump into her in Vondelpark.

The visit was also a lovely opportunity to catch up with writer friend Gaston Dorren. Dorren and I have stayed in touch since we shared a stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival back in 2015.

My visit coincided with a special day for him: his latest book, Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, had just come out in his mother tongue, Dutch. When we met for lunch, he had just picked up his copy from his publisher. As you can see, from the photo, however, he was very self-effacing about this achievement.

After a stroll around Amsterdam’s picturesque centre, I met Annelies Verbeke for ginger ale and hot chocolate in a café near to the Zuiderkerk, where the evening event would take place. I was intrigued to hear about her work at VU, which, among other things, has involved gathering volunteer translations of short stories from around the world.

I was also thrilled to discover that Verbeke has been inspired to mount her own international literary quest and has so far read books from 75 countries. We talked enthusiastically about some of the many questions around cultural identity and authenticity that such armchair travels uncover, and I picked her brain for recommendations.

The evening event was an extravaganza. Bringing together performances from intercultural women’s choir Mihira (a group made up of singers from some 20 countries who each contribute music from their cultural tradition to the repertoire), actor Kenneth Herdigein and Friesian poet Tsead Bruinja with talks from Verbeke and several of the university staff, it offered the 200 or so audience members a smorgasbord of cultural delights.

As one of the major themes was the challenge of combatting the spread of English in Dutch culture, I felt rather sheepish when it was my turn to take the stage (my Dutch, I’m afraid, is not equal to delivering a presentation and I was obliged to stick to my mother tongue). Everyone was extremely gracious and welcoming, however, and the staged discussion Verbeke and I had with fellow author and host Abdelkader Benali was fascinating.

Over a drink afterwards, I asked Benali more about his work. Although we English speakers only have access to his first novel, Wedding by the Sea, the Moroccan-Dutch writer is prolific, particularly as a theatre-maker. His explanation of the process he goes through to develop shows and the emotional investment that each of the performances requires was wonderful.

I left the Zuiderkerk impressed once more by the richness that the world’s storytellers have to offer – and how much we English speakers often miss.

Macedonia: web of associations

There were several possibilities in the frame for Macedonia. Will Firth, translator of my Croatian pick, Our Man in Iraq, had suggested two options: Luan Starova’s My Father’s Books and Pirey by Petre M Andreevski, both of which sounded tempting.

But it was when I heard about writer Goce Smilevski that my ears really pricked up. His novel Sigmund Freud’s Sister won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2010 and is being published in more than 30 languages. Reaching further back, Smilevski was awarded the Central European Initiative Fellowship for young European authors in 2006 and his book Conversation with Spinoza: a cobweb novel won the 2003 Macedonian Novel of the Year Award. I decided it would be the book for me.

As the subtitle suggests, this is no ordinary novel. In fact, any hopes you might have of following a conventional yarn are quickly dispatched by the ‘Note to the Reader’ on the very first page:

‘The threads of this novel are spun out of conversations between you and Spinoza. So wherever there is an empty space in the words of Spinoza, just say your name and write it in the blank space.’

And that sums up the basic structure: ricocheting back and forth across the space of almost 400 years, the novel is based on a dialogue between the modern reader and the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza – or, rather, two versions of him. The first is the confident young man wedded to his quest for complete freedom by focusing his mind only on eternal things and mastering his emotions. The interlocutor of the second part is the lonely, elderly hermit, looking back with regret on a life lived at arm’s length from the world. Both Spinozas tell the story of their existences, prompted by questions and observations from the reader. In so doing, they set up two markers, between which, as Smilevski spins his narrative, a web of contradictions and connections shimmers.

The author’s attention to detail is extraordinary – so much so that in this ‘cobweb novel’ it sometimes feels as though we are seeing a spider’s-eye view of life. From the trace of a tear on the face of Spinoza’s corpse at the start of the novel, to a drop of blood painted by the 26-year-old Rembrandt – who makes a cameo appearance early on – we find ourselves in a universe where minutiae make all the difference. Smilevski turns this to great effect in the latter sections of the novel, where a speck on a handkerchief comes to symbolise the young Spinoza’s love for his mother and where the philosopher fights his feelings for Clara Maria, the daughter of his mentor, by listing and denying a series of finely observed details about her.

Some unexpected gusts of humour blow through the narrative too. I particularly enjoyed the description of Spinoza’s forebears enlisting people to carry messages to their relatives by way of a series of odd gestures and signs as they fled the Spanish Inquisition: ‘in all of the towns they passed through, Isaac and Mor Alvares left people jumping on one leg in the square, crouching and standing up near the harbor, or clapping their hands in front of the cathedral’. In addition, when we first meet Clara Maria she is lamenting the death of Jesus, only for her father to respond: ‘You can’t do anything about it dear, such is life. […] Think about it, he was very old and all his teeth had fallen out; he couldn’t even eat properly’ – whereupon we learn that Jesus is a dog.

Smilevski’s handling of the question-and-answer structure is impressive. Rarely did I feel resentment at having words put in my mouth in the text because, for the most part, the author anticipates precisely the responses and questions his reader will have. This becomes a powerful tool in the latter stages where a very intimate dialogue evolves with the disappointed Spinoza, centring around his sadness at ‘how forcefully [he has] driven everybody away’.

The treatment of Spinoza’s philosophy in the text, on the other hand, is mixed. While Smilevski provides glimpses of what it’s like to stretch the limits of language and understanding in an effort to advance ideas, the conversations between his protagonist and some of the other characters occasionally become impenetrable. At these points, the meaning disappears behind a swarm of abstract terms, which, not fixed firmly enough with the pin of definition, flit about the text leaving the reader flailing in their wake. Smilevski’s introduction of anachronistic theories about evolution into the story as a way of explaining Spinoza’s rejection by the Jewish community is also problematic. The author seems to feel this too, for he makes the concepts the brainchild of a mysterious Macedonian who appears and disappears quickly and, we later hear, is executed for his dangerous ideas.

All in all, though, this a powerful and moving book. It is, in essence, a portrait of a mind trapping itself in a cage of its own making in the effort to be free. Smilevski’s portrayal of Spinoza’s philosophy may be opaque at times, but there’s surely something we can all take from it.

Conversation with Spinoza (Razgovor so Spinoza) by Goce Smilevski, translated from the Macedonian by Filip Korzenski (Northwestern University Press, 2006)

The Rest of the World poll is now open. Vote to choose my penultimate book of the year!