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Rita Rahman: Liefdesgeuren (Love’s Perfumes)

Myrna is an environmentalist from a former Dutch Caribbean colony – the colony is never named – who is in the Netherlands and is currently attending the World Food Summit. Arno is a junior minister in the Dutch government and is attending the Summit out of a sense of duty but is not very enthusiastic. The two meet and Myrna takes Arno in hand, though he gives her the nickname (to himself) of Madame Noir. Arno is divorced and, while attracted to Myrna, is happy in his bachelor existence. Arno has a particular problem – insomnia. He has not slept for nine nights and is permanently tired. Myrna tells him that sleep is something that can be learned and she has helped others to learn how to sleep. She has picked up the technique from her beloved grandmother, Dina. Granny Dina had a high status in the shanty town where Myrna grew up, as she was a faith healer, traditional midwife and a volunteer in mental health care. She studied midwifery and became a registered midwife. After Myrna’s father died, drowned at sea, the family moved in with Granny Dina, and Myrna owes much to her.

While we are following the story of Myrna and Arno, we also follow the story of A (male) and S (female), as told by Myrna to Arno. We later learn that S is called Sandra. They are both natives of the Caribbean island. It is Sandra that tells the story. She had grown up in a well-to-do household but she had met John and they had together joined the Popular Front. Sandra had only once been to the poor district – to a birthday party for the daughter of the family’s housekeeper, where she had lorded it over the other children. Now she is back selling magazines. However, this is not too successful. (The islanders knew nothing of the masters of revolution, from Marx to Mao Tse-Tung.) The Popular Front is lead by a man known initially as the Returnee, as he has recently returned from Amsterdam. Sandra calls him Ret (in her recounting of the tale) but we later learn that his real name is Erik. They plan various activities, which seem to change frequently. The group is anti-colonialist – the island is still a Dutch colony at the time. Their plans include Cuban style tactics, Gandhian tactics and attacking a statue. Meanwhile, the island is moving towards independence, partially as a Dutch response to the Vietnam War, which the Dutch government wants to criticise but feels unable to do so when it still has colonies. At the same time, Sandra moves away from John and towards Ret, even though he is much older than her. They start a casual affair but he is not interested in having a permanent relationship, which upsets Sandra. At the same time, as the island moves towards independence, things start to go wrong. As with other independence movements, they find that a controlling, central power can keep the lid on ethnic tensions but, once this power withdraws, ethnic tensions are bound to occur and do, involving the native population, the blacks and those of Indian origin.

Back in Amsterdam, Myrna has made an agreement with Arno. She will help him sleep if he will show her Europe and explain to her honestly what is going on (I’m looking for an intellectual who dares to answer my questions truthfully.) This later expands – I want to know what you’ve taken from us over the past five hundred years. I want to know why things didn’t get better after your left. I want to take something home that can contribute to injecting new life into our heritage. He willingly agrees and they go off on trips to Paris and Belgium. Meanwhile, she helps him to sleep but is very careful to avoid any physical contact with him (To his astonishment she avoids, anxiously,and sometime almost hysterically, any form of physical contact.) While Arno seems to be interested in a romantic relationship, he respects the rules she has laid down.

Rahman certainly makes her point about the coloniser-colonised and black-white relationships as well as the values of traditional cultures versus Western cultures. They did not understand that 150 years after the abolition of black slavery, having black skin is still a serious crime all over the world, Myrna says. However, as a story it does not quite work. We have separate, albeit related stories, both of which tend to focus more on making a point than telling a story and both of which drift away. Nevertheless, it is interesting to get a story from a former Dutch Caribbean colony and Rahman has some things to say that are applicable to other former colonies/colonisers.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Knipscheer
First published in English 2003 by Penguin
Translated by Paul Vincent