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Astrid Roemer: Lijken op liefde [Looks Like Love]

The title is a play on words for, while it does mean something like looks like love, the Dutch word liefde means dead bodies, and that is much more relevant to this story. On 8 December 1982, the military government of Desi Bouterse rounded up fifteen people. All were shot, allegedly while trying to escape. No-one has been brought to justice for these killings. Cora Sewa, the main character in this novel, states that two terrible things happened to Suriname – colonisation by the Dutch and the December killings.

Cora Sewa worked much of her early life in service. Initially she worked mainly for foreigners but later worked for a Surinamese family, the Crommelincks, where she gets caught up in a family dispute, with the father (a government official) and the daughter ranged against the mother (not Surinamese born but who speaks Dutch with a Surinamese accent and speaks the local dialect) and the son, who will grow up to become the judge investigating the December killings. Cora will take the side of the father and daughter, not least because the mother despises her, commenting, when people say what a good worker she is, that that is her job and she is worked hard because you cannot trust darkies. Cora meets and marries Herbert. Though they are married a long time, they have no children. He is a faith healer and later a market gardener though we (and Cora) later learn that that is not all that he does. Two key events, linked to the December killings, happen early on. Cora is taken by an acquaintance to clean up the body of a murdered woman and her unborn baby. She is given the task as she is to be trusted but she is made to sign an agreement that she will tell no-one about it and given a large sum of money, which she puts away in savings account, as hush money. There is another murder, when her brother-in-law, Onno Sewa, is found poisoned. The perpetrator is not found and there is pressure on the family not to investigate further.

While we follow Cora’s early life, much of the novel is set in 2000 (i.e. three years into the future from when the novel was first published), particularly when it is announced that there will be hearings into the December killings. Cora is determined to find out for herself and she sets off on a difficult trip to Europe, using the money in her savings account, to investigate, based on some information she has. She finds letters that the murdered woman received (many of them from Cora’s murdered brother-in-law), which give clues as to who might be implicated but not enough information as to the perpetrator. Further journeys to Britain, Florida and Curaçao give more information but lead us to conclude that the guilt lies not with one individual but a group of individuals or, perhaps, the whole country.

While it is not a bad story, it does seem to go off on tangents at times and while we can sympathise and understand Cora to a certain degree, as well as share her concern about this dark episode of Suriname’s history, her quest and the outcome are not really satisfactory. No doubt it is ironic that the man who must take much of the blame – Desi Bouterse – was elected president in 2010.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam
Availability: Out of print
Published in German as Könnte Liebe sein by Berlin Verlag in 1998
Translated by Christiane Kuby.