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Thomas Rosenboom: Publieke werken [Public Works]

Thomas Rosenboom’s general modus operandi is historical fiction with characters caught up in something beyond their control. This is certainly the case with this book. It is set in the late nineteenth century, primarily in the Dutch towns of Amsterdam and Hoogeveen. There are three stories, all linked. We start with a Jewish family, the Bennemins, headed by Pet Bennemin. They have been making their living by dredging for peat. However, this is becoming increasingly difficult, much harder work and with little reward. They decide to move and find out that there is a peat bog just outside Hoogeveen, where they can build a shack on free land and dig up peat, so they move there. There are, of course, other poor peat diggers there. Though there is a doctor in Hoogeveen for the poor, he is fairly ineffective but, fortunately, the local pharmacist, Christof Anijs, is very helpful. Pet’s daughter, Johanna is courted by another poor man, Sieger. In accordance wtih custom, he comes into her bedroom at night. This allows him to determine whether she is fertile before marriage. Unfortunately, she does not get pregnant and Sieger and his friends mock the family and the relationship is ended.

Christof Anijs was the assistant to one of the pharmacists in the town. The pharmacist had two daughters. One moved away, and Christof married the other, Martha. When the pharmacist died, Christof took over and has been successful but has not been accepted by the town’s elite, to Martha’s disappointment. Meanwhile, the other pharmacist also died. He was eventually replaced by a young man, Halink. When Christof meets Halink, he is very concerned that the new man has a formal qualification. While it was not required when Christof became a pharmacist, he still feels that people are more likely to use the services of a man with a qualification. Christof and Martha do not have children but Martha, in particular, takes an interest in the children of the peat settlement.

Christof has a cousin in Amsterdam, called Walter Vedder. (Wittily enough, Vedder is an old Dutch word meaning cousin). Vedder repairs and sells violins. He is somewhat embittered in that his competitor gets the jobs for the orchestra players while he only gets the jobs for amateurs. He is single (his wife left him). However, he encouraged a neighbouring couple, who did not have any children, to adopt a boy, Theo, from a local orphanage. One of the advantages is that the orphanage would subsidise the boy till he was eighteen (he is about to turn sixteen at the start of the novel). Vedder has taken an interest in the boy and helps him financially. The boy does visit him but usually only to ask for money. Vedder is very interested in town planning. Amsterdam is going through something of a boom. Veeder used to have a clear view down to the harbour but this has now been obscured. A new station is being built nearby, as are several expensive hotels. Vedder writes articles under a pseudonym on the topic. Early in the book, he learns that a new hotel is to be built and they plan to use the land on which his house and the houses of his neighbours will be used. He is visited by Ebert, a representative of the hotel, to offer him a deal. Together with his neighbour, the tailor Carstens, Vedder is determined to resist the initial offer and hold out for a much better price.

The three stories are brought together when Pet Bennemin takes a violin he has inherited from his late father to Christof, knowing he has a cousin who sells violins, asking if the cousin can sell it. Vedder comes to Hoogeveen to examine the violin and suggests it is worth a hundred guilders. Back in Amsterdam he has met his cousin Al Vedder. Al’s father had emigrated to the United States and Al is in Amsterdam for business. Initially, he only casually drops by to see Walter.

From this point, the plot develops in various ways. Johanna does become pregnant. Vedder struggles with Ebert to get more money. Halink expands his business into photography and electric lighting. Theo learns that he is an orphan and assumes Vedder is his biological father. Things get more complicated when Christof hears that his cousin is about to get 50,000 guilders for his house and suggests he invests it in providing for the poor people of Hoogeveen to emigrate to the United States. They would pay him back when they got there and had made some money. However, in a series of complicated plot strands, various things go wrong for several of the key characters.

Rosenboom tells an excellent story, replete with lots of fascinating details about urban development in Amsterdam, emigration and, naturally, lots of local politics. He keeps the pace moving while painting a vivid picture of late nineteenth century Netherlands, with all the changes it is experiencing. This book won the prestigious Dutch Libris Prize. However, though it has been translated into Danish, German and Hungarian and is, apparently, being translated into French, it has not yet been translated into English.

Publishing history

First published in 1999 by Querido
No English translation
Published in German as Neue Zeiten by Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt in 2004
Also published in Danish and Hungarian