Jeroen Brouwers - towards the end of the war he watches as the increasingly brutal and sadistic Japanese guards and soldiers undress his mother and practically kick her to death: ‘My mother was the prettiest mother, at that moment I stopped loving her. From that moment I lost my way.’

 

Jeroen Brouwers, Sunken Red. Trans. by Adrienne Dixon. New Amsterdam Books, 1998.

An adult male examines his relationship with his mother shortly after she has died in an old people’s home. He has had no contact with her for a number of years. He goes back in his mind to the Japanese POW camp where he, his mother, little sister and grandmother were all interned.
He describes ‘the hunger, the diseases, the suffering, death. And all the rest besides.’ Having been reminded of the hell that the camp was, ‘a haze of sunken red’ has descended over his eyes. What he cannot forgive in himself is the eagerness with which he looked on at all that happened as a young camp-child: ‘My camp syndrome consists of the bad conscience I now have towards the voracious toddler I was who desired so fervently to see everything that happened.’ Thus towards the end of the war he watches as the increasingly brutal and sadistic Japanese guards and soldiers undress his mother and practically kick her to death: ‘My mother was the prettiest mother, at that moment I stopped loving her. From that moment I lost my way.’ The memories are continually set off against and seen from events of the present: his relationship to his ex-wife Liza.
 
In Sunken Red, Brouwer’s exploration of the experience of loss through estrangement and death lingers with the reader. - Publisher’s Weekly

This haunting novel is a cathartic experience. - New York Sunday Times 
One of the most important novels in contemporary literature. - Die Zeit 
 
  
Sunken Red swirls around the author's memories of his time in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia when he was five years old. I once wrote a long poem about all the funerals I had been to in Holland because they are so especially gray and bleak. Jeroen Brouwers, however, has written an entire book about a funeral in Holland he didn't attend, that of his mother long after he had lost contact with her. His mother and her death are used for metaphor and symbol but we don't really grasp who she is at all. When I complained to my father the bleakness of this book he said that Dutch literature seems to be either about boredom or sexual perversion or both. There is definitely a certain amount of each in this book, lots of Oedipal complex passages, lots of reference to women's blood - a kind of study of a man's tormented relationship to woman that makes you really, really jumpy. He says that as a child he saw men raping and beating women so he thought that was what you were supposed to do to them - uh oh!! However he is careful to say this has all left him very hard and unable to love, and luckily he doesn't seem to be enacting any kind of nasty behaviour on anyone. He is after all, as the biography describes him on the cover, a "distinguished Dutch man of letters".
This status appears self-consciously from time to time when he writes things such as "With the receiver in my ear, one hand on my penis, I thought: I learn that my mother has died when I am just as naked as I was when I was born of that mother, almost forty-one years ago. By literary criteria it is trash, but I did think it." You can't help thinking relax Jeroen! Just write the thought in a way that isn't trashy instead of futzing about it. When he repeats thoughts (symbols or metaphors usually) he often places them in quotations, perhaps so we know he intended the repetition. Well, this is a translation, maybe I can blame the translator Adrienne Dixon for those pretentions.
What I did respect in this book (I can hardly say I enjoyed it) was that his description of camp life feels so entirely true. He complains "I have never known those who lived through that hell to speak of the Japanese camps in a tone other than one of affection and even nostalgia, and that may have contributed to the impression outsiders have that 'it couldn't have been all that bad'. The literature about the Japanese camps is scant, and consists mainly of understatements, because the writers were afraid of tears and pathos." Accusations of other cowardly writers aside, I did find Brouwers' tale of camp life chilling and honest, and unfailingly realistic.
I've overheard comments in my father's family about certain members who received compensation for their suffering during the war, people saying "she didn't suffer at all where she was - why did she get that money?". My feeling was that no one could compensate any of them enough and this book backs me up in that opinion. Again, war sucks.- www.imho-reviews.com/opinion/87_0_1_0_C
 
Ten years after the première, Sunken Red is alive and kicking! Dirk Roofthooft has performed the show in various languages (Dutch, French, Spanish and English) all over the world: in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Canada, the United States of America, Poland, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Luxembourg, Germany, Czech Republic and Taiwan. Now the show is returning to Belgium for a jubillee series at the Bourla from November 5th to 8th 2014.
To tie in with the jubilee at the Bourla, Dirk Roofthooft will be explaining what it’s like to perform a play for so long for totally different audiences and in four different languages.  
Sunken Red is one of the most moving mourning poems in Dutch literature by writer Jeroen Brouwers, staged by Guy Cassiers and brought to life on stage by a phenomenal Dirk Roofthooft.
Jeroen Brouwers wrote Bezonken rood (Sunken Red) (1981) in the weeks following his mother’s death. In 1943, three-year-old Jeroen Brouwers was imprisoned in the women’s Tjideng Camp (now Jakarta) with his sister, his mother and his grandmother. The writer talks about how the camp did permanent damage to his relationship with his mother and how every new love affair breaks down under the weight of that experience.  Sunken Red is a prayer, litany, elegy, farewell letter, ode, curse, cry of despair, self-pitying lament … all these things in one moving, harsh and poetical narration.

“Theatre can be hallucinatory, like a trip, a dream that lifts you out of your seat. Though that happens only rarely, Guy Cassiers and Dirk Roofthooft managed it in Sunken Red. (…) Roofthooft is a phenomenal actor, but he is not on his own. Aided by sound technology which goes beyond perfection, every breath, every change in his voice is audible. The result is unprecedented subtlety. Even in a large auditorium, you feel the story is being told to you alone.” – Marian Buijs in De Volkskrant (NL)

"Sunken Red is an ode to virtuosity. It is an evening that wreaks havoc on you. May Dirk Roofthooft continue to perform this play to the end of his life!” Ruth Joos in De Standaard 07/06/10

“A fantastic performance! This is one of the rare theatre productions where the filmed image does not illustrate, does not distract and does not make the actor disappear either: in fact, the image enhances him and merges with him.” - Javier Vallejo in El Pais (ES)

“The director Guy Cassiers and the actor Dirk Roofthooft, both Belgians, adapted the text along with Corien Baart. The result is an extraordinary response to the eternal question of how to deal with the subject of violence in theatre. Without howling or Kalashnikovs, they show a destroyed life by the voice of an actor who is all by himself on the stage. Dirk Roofthooft is powerful, solid, calm and captivating. He simply tells his story, taking his time to pronounce the words, filled with tiredness. Nothing is played, nothing is illustrated. There are only a few video cameras that the actor speaks to, projecting the image of a broken man onto a wall of blinds behind his back, like the face that the personage recognises less and less in the bathroom mirror.” - Maïa Bouteillet in Libération (FR) 22/07/2006
 - toneelhuis.be/#!/en/post/10-years-sunken-red

Before attending Sunken Red, at BAM's Next Wave Festival, I'd considered downing a Xanax or a substantial quality of gin—some prophylactic measure to arm myself against a uniquely depressing evening. This elaborately staged solo performance—a collaboration between Belgium's Toneelhuis Theater, the Netherlands' ro Theater, director Guy Cassiers, and actor Dirk Roofthooft—is adapted from Jeroen Brouwers's 1981 autobiographical novel of the same name. The book and play concern young Brouwers's internment in a Japanese camp in Jakarta during World War II. He watches his grandmother die, his sister sicken, and his mother viciously beaten. His time in the camp destroys his relationship with his mother and poisons his adult entanglements. "Well," I thought, trying to cheer myself up, "at least it isn't about the Holocaust." I needn't have fretted. Somewhat to its detriment, Sunken Red doesn't unduly distress audience members: Roofthooft offers a vision of a man so tremendously self-involved that he doesn't bother upsetting anyone. The piece begins as Roofthooft uses files to slough away at the calluses on his feet—a slightly more active form of navel-gazing. Even when Roofthooft rises, lifts his gaze, and speaks, he reveals a man plagued by self-absorption, unable to release himself from past trauma. He begins his account in 1981, when he receives word of his aged mother's death. She died alone, a bite of cheese sandwich suspended in her mouth. This news draws him back to 1945, where, at the age of five, he first felt an estrangement from her. In the camp, watching her lie naked and bloodied on the ground, he remembers thinking: "Now I want another mother—this one is broken."
 In a review of Brouwers's novel, The New York Times described the book as "cathartic," saying: "We watch Mr. Brouwers emerge from the walking dead." But the performance offers no such narrative arc or catharsis. Roofthooft's Brouwers remains disdainfully half-alive, describing himself as "so hard . . . so bitter . . . so unfeeling." Silhouettes and live video double and triple Roofthooft's presence on the stage, offering his petulant baby face in agonizing close-ups. But the man he plays always keeps his distance. - Alexis Soloski


Jeroen Brouwers, De zondvloed. 1988.


When you hear “the Great Dutch novel”, what is it that first comes to your mind? Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven? Willem Frederik Hermans’ The Dark Room of Damocles? Or, perhaps, Hugo Claus’ The Sorrow of Belgium? but that would be the Great Flemish Novel, wouldn’t it? Anyway, there is this partially autobiographic novel by Jeroen Brouwers, whose title could be translated as The Flood or The Deluge, that has kept fascinating and repelling the Dutch language readers since it was published in 1988, and, by virtue (or, rather, vice) of being untranslated, has stayed under the radar of the English speaking public. Some of its readers do believe that this novel has all the rights to literary  greatness and that its author should be awarded the Nobel Prize for it. How come, many of you, readers of this blog, have neither heard of this novel, nor about its author? Well, try to find something in English on him, and you’ll be lucky if you dredge up at least a couple of pages worth of useful information. However, based on the few titbits I’ve been able to dig up, I assure you that The Deluge is a worthy candidate for my rubric The Great Untranslated.
The protagonist of the novel is a bibulous, mysanthropic, sexually frustrated writer who at the symbolic age of 33 flees society to live in a ramshackle cabin in the woods. The story of his life is told in flashbacks, and in general lines, it follows the biography of Brouwers himself. We learn about the main character’s childhood in Indonesia at the time of the Second World War and immediately after it. Besides the hardships experienced by his family in a Japanese internment camp, there are happy memories of the time spent in the post-war Balikpapan which is not meant to last as the boy moves to the Netherlands where he is immersed into the suffocating ambiance of regimentation and strict discipline reigning in a boarding school for boys. While at school, the boy conjures up an image of his beloved, a Beatrice of sorts, that he will be trying to encounter most of his adult life. He does meet a woman he thinks he loves; they get married and have two children.  But, eventually, the writer abandons his family that has turned out to be anything but the ideals he has cherished since childhood. Angst-ridden and disillusioned, he becomes a hermit in the woods, drowning his sorrows in gin.
There seems to be nothing striking about the plot, but that is not the main thing in this novel. The Dutch reviewers seem to concur that the imagery and the language are just jaw-dropping. There are also various mythological and classical motifs woven into the fabric of the narrative such as Orpheus’ quest for Eurydice and Dante’s journey through Hell. The narrative itself is not chronological, but jumps between different time frames, and when it comes to reminiscing about things past, Brouwers appears to reach truly Proustian heights.
Returning to the initial question of this post, I cannot promise you that Jeroen Brouwers’ hefty tome is as great as it looks to be based on several secondary sources. You will have to find it out for yourselves. And in order for that to transpire, obviously, this novel should be made available in English. You know, several years ago I would have been very pessimistic on this account, but not anymore. Just recently we have seen the English translations of such perennial preterites as Adam Buenosayres and Prae. Arno Schmidt’s untranslatable Bottom’s Dream, albeit with delay, is for sure to be published by Dalkey Archive at some point, perhaps this year. All these developments give us hope to see The Deluge translated sooner than we might think. Let me know if  any information regarding this becomes available. - theuntranslated.wordpress.com/2015/03/21/the-great-untranslated-de-zondvloed-the-deluge-by-jeroen-brouwers/

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