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Cees Nooteboom: In Nederland (later: In de bergen van Nederland) (In the Dutch Mountains)

The Dutch title of this book was originally In Nederland, which translates as In Netherlands, a play on words which is particularly appropriate for this book. The English title comes from the later Dutch title, In de bergen van Nederland, a literal translation of the Dutch. Whatever the title, it is a superb work of fantasy, post-modernism, language and story-telling.

The story is narrated by Spanish highways engineer, Alfonso Tiburón de Mendoza. As he later tells us, tiburón means shark, though he is very unshark-like. He is responsible for the roads in the Zaragoza area in the present day and, in his spare time, writes fairy tales, generally while seated at a desk in a school in Zaragoza. They do not sell well. He has spent considerable time in the Netherlands and speaks good Dutch (albeit with an accent) and is continually comparing not only the two countries but also their languages. During the course of this book, he is writing a fairy tale, set in a fictional present in the Netherlands, about a couple called Kai and Lucia. Not only does he tell the tale, he talks about it while writing about it. The story is set in the present, though he does say that it is not. However, it seems to have many of the trappings of the modern-day world, such as cars and talent agents. One major difference is that the fictional Netherlands is nominally divided into two – the civilized North and the wild South. Though they are the same country, there is a frontier between the two and the South seems more lawless and brutal and far less habited. Kai and Julia are the children of circus performers. They are very good-looking and happily married. They are not very talented but have developed an act as illusionists, whereby Kai asks Lucia questions about an object handed to him by a member of the audience and she is able to describe the object though she has not seen it. Of course, they use a code.

At the beginning of the story their agent tells them that he cannot get them work. He wants to put them into porn but eventually suggests they go down South. Down South is traditionally the graveyard of careers in the entertainment business as well as being dangerous but they have no choice. They go down South and meet problems at the border and at their first performance. Kai is soon kidnapped by the Snow Queen and held for her pleasure. Lucia sets out, with the aid of a clown, Anna, to find him. They have a picaresque journey and, of course, eventually do find him. In fairy tales love, of course, conquers all. But the joy of this book is not just the fairy tale but the way in which Tiburón narrates it, comments on it and tells us a little of his own story. Nooteboom uses to him to comment on story-telling and on language as well as other topics, even while driving the two plots – the fairy tale and Tiburón’s own story – forward. It works very well and is a book that deserves to be better known.

Publishing history

First published in 1984 by De Arbeiderspers
First published in English in 1987 by Viking