Futile Scribbles in the Margins of History
Chief Opinay and Chief Administrator C.J. Schneider, Baliem Valley, Dutch New-Guinea.
National Geographic Magazine, May, 1962.
Photo by John Scofield
the decor is Berlin, New York or the Dutch village Lutten (in the novel Quadriga, 2010; the novella Tabee, New York, 1974; and the short story ‘De verovering van Bandung’ in the collection Zaken overzee, 1977, respectively) he succeeds in adding an exotic tone. The author lived in most of these places for a long time, either in his youth or, later, as a diplomat.
The Baliem Valley had only been under Dutch authority for a short while when Springer became the chief administrator (which he was from 1960 to 1962). The clash between the Stone Age and the twentieth century that he experienced at first hand there is the theme of some of his work: the novella Schimmen rond de Parula (1966), for example, in which the converts made by an American missionary take his message so literally that they crucify him; and his post-humously published novel Met stille trom (2012) - which he actually wrote in 1962 - in which an American anthropologist who wants to allow the original inhabitants to keep their own rituals, including regular tribal wars, clashes with the Dutch authorities. The confrontation between such radically different times and cultures forms a core motif in Springer's work: mutatis mutandis everyone lives in different worlds simultaneously; the tragedy of life is that one seldom or never succeeds in reconciling these worlds with each other.
Two types of characters stand out in his work as far as that is concerned: the escapist and the braggart. Various characters escape from the inclemencies of life in illusions. Sometimes they literally step out of life or disappear without a trace; often they sacrifice hard reality to their imagination. The businessman Charles Enders in Quissama (1985) is an example of the latter. He neglects his exploration of the Angolan market because he is completely absorbed by the stories of an impossible love told to him by a fellow countryman who has, in the meantime, tragically died. This is a character who can count one hundred percent on Springer's sympathy. Those who sell their dreams as their successes, on the other hand, do not come off well in Springer's work. In almost every novel there are braggarts like this, braggarts who end up hitting rock-bottom.
Springer is not the type of writer that expressly engages with social or political standpoints; his engagement is in the first instance with the individual that stands his ground in the world by following his dreams. At the same time the realisation that many people cannot hang on to those dreams permeates his work; it is teeming with missed opportunities. Nonetheless, in Met stille trom, for example, he makes it clear between the lines that he does believe that the Western ideal of civilisation is right for those still living in the Stone Age. From the fact that his administrators and diplomats generally go about their work without complaining, we can infer that he also believes that they make a useful contribution to the relations between different peoples. But Springer would never use that type of language (‘make a useful contribution’). He prefers ‘playing embassy’ and ‘futile scribbles in the margins of history’
In addition to being civil servants, diplomats or businessmen, many of Springer's main characters are, or are forced to become, writers. While writing seems to come easily to them in everyday life (they ‘bang out’ their reports because they know pretty much what their superiors want to read), it is quite the opposite with their personal writing. It might look as if it has been put together casually, but in fact it is all about sharp phrasing and vivid characterisation, as is the case with his much admired examples. A familiar technique in Springer's work is the comparison of events with scenes from films and characters with film stars; or one hears a song in a scene that adds to the atmosphere - casual manipulations whereby the imagination strengthens the illusion of reality.
A good example of how Springer reflects on his writing can be seen in Bougainville, Een gedenkschrift (1981), considered by many to be his most successful novel. In it, the main character Bo, the Dutch Chargé d'affaires in Dhaka (then Dacca), Bangladesh, gets hold of the story of his recently drowned boyhood friend Tommie Vaulant's adulterous love affair with a former school friend. From his own comments on the opening sentence of his story - ‘She was so extremely blonde it left me speechless’ - it is clear that Tommie realises he is definitely not a writer:
‘Ah no, that's not how Kleist opened, Gatsby didn't start like that. Everything I'd like to say is blocked by her. My friend Bo, who writes (slick) stories and loves pertinent opening sentences, would laugh himself silly if he read “she was so exceptionally blonde”. (And anyway, she wasn't blonde). Get some
distance, some perspective, take yourself pretty much out of the equation - that is the only way to make something of it, on paper and elsewhere too. That's what Bo would say. We only spent an hour together this time. He came from the ministry and we had coffee on the Square, in The Hague. They had his collection of short stories in the window of the bookshop there. He bought one for me and, despite the chitchat, the slap on the shoulder, I knew it was important to him to give me that book. I could see him thinking: whatever you do, don't be too serious, don't get theatrical or dramatic.’
The Shah as braggart
Apart from being a literary commentary (in which Springer indirectly trivializes his own writing - ‘writes (slick) stories’) this is also a life commentary: there is no place for theatricality in stories any more than there is amongst friends. What is really important becomes clear from a person's actions, not from what he says about them. The need to put things into perspective applies not only ‘on paper’ but ‘elsewhere too’, in everyday life.
That becomes all the clearer from the passage in this novel describing the talk Bo attended in Dhaka given by the then deathly tired French writer André Malraux. Bo, who has great admiration for Malraux, realises that he is standing ‘eye to eye with Grandeur’, with an adversary of fascism, the confidant of various great people in the world, but also with the friend of the writer E. du Perron, to whom Malraux had dedicated the novel La Condition Humaine and in whose novel Het land van herkomst he himself figured as Heverlé. As preparation Bo had read some of Het land van herkomst. When he is finally able to shake Malraux's hand, Bo calls himself not an admirer but a compatriot of his friend:
‘“Je suis...” I said, “je suis compatriote d'Eddy du Perron”. He took my hand and said something, so softly that I didn't understand, and he had no chance to repeat it as two women suddenly embraced him enthusiastically and shouted loudly that they had admired his work so very much for years.’
Not all of Springer's writers are as conscientious as this Bo. One of them is actually a pure imposter as a writer, in the tradition of Willem Elsschot's characters. This applies to Toby Harrison in Teheran, een zwanezang (1991), who gets a commission, just before the fall of the Shah, to write a biography of the Pahlevis in the tradition of James Morier's famous picaresque novel The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, which was regarded by many in the nineteenth century as giving a true picture of Persia. Harrison knows very well what sort of writer he himself is: ‘I sprinkle well-known historical facts with a sauce of highly imaginative noises. [My] books are not meant for clever Swiss clockmakers. I write for nitwits.’ In the character of this nonentity, for whom the Shah seems to have more time than for Western diplomats who could help him save his skin, Springer gives a wonderful and often hilarious picture of the unworldliness of a man who fails to see how thin his power and status have worn: the Shah as braggart.
F. Springer (1932-2011)
© Hans Kleijn
One element present in all of Springer's novels and stories is the Indonesian background of one or more of its characters, often the main character. Much of this is directly linked to the writer's first thirteen years of life, in Java, and his childhood friendships and loves, and certainly the three years in Japanese camps. Later meetings with former friends play a major role in several of the novels. The sadness at no longer being able to relive the past as it really was and the impossibility of undoing mistakes from the past colours some of these stories. What he reveals of the camps is partly hidden behind a shield of relativity (‘some hunger, some homesickness’), but the most harrowing events, such as being separated from his mother at ten years of age, seeing and experiencing misery and death, are clearly mentioned.
In two novels that he wrote after he retired from diplomacy, this period is central. Bandoeng Bandung (1993) is the story of an older Dutch politician who goes along on a commercial mission to Java, the land of his birth, as an expert in the field. There he comes into contact with a former classmate of Indonesian origin, to whom he had promised at the end of the war to do what he could to get him out of Indonesia too. But he never fulfilled his promise and feels like a fraud now. The meeting affects him so much that he decides to give up his political and administrative ambitions. He does not want his career in society to hinder his ability to fulfil his real obligations any more.
The other novel is Kandy, Een terugtocht (1998), the story of the laborious repatriation of incomplete families after the war. After mothers and children had first been reunited with each other following their years in Japanese camps, it took months, due to chaotic bureaucracy, before they could be reunited with the fathers, who had ended up in Bangkok after their forced labour on the Burma railway. Meanwhile, the mothers and children were stranded in Kandy, in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Mountbatten's former headquarters. The subtitle, ‘a journey back’, applies not only to the events described, it also refers to the way in which the story is told. One of the children of the time recounts his memories, looking back at the secret club in which he and other children had created their own world, remembering the love he never expressed for the girl who was the natural leader of the club and the fact that he might, accidentally, have wounded or even killed their favourite camp waiter with a bow and arrow. Both the question of whether he really was so in love as he remembers now and his doubts about the consequences of his shot take such a hold on him that he goes in search of his companions from back then. Although the meeting results in a brief moment of acknowledgement of what had previously had to remain unsaid, this acknowledgement comes too late. Meanwhile he comments on his nostalgic questions as ‘an old fool's sentimental nonsense’. He is a typical Springer character: someone whose nostalgia and disillusionment get in his way. That is also the case, for example, in Tabee, New York (1974), the first novel for which Springer delved into his Indonesian youth. In it, a young Dutch diplomat rediscovers his childhood love from Indonesia in the United States. In the meantime she is unhappily married with his erstwhile rival. But when he finally gets his chance with her, he feels it is too late and deliberately lets it go.
It is true that most of Springer's characters, like Bo in Bougainville, give themselves up at some point to ‘all sorts of sentimental thoughts, distant loves, missed opportunities, deeply buried but never forgotten blunders and a bit of self-pity too.’ But then they usually straighten up and tell themselves and the readers: ‘What do you bring home from your travels? A handful of wild stories that are embellished with more and more invented true-to-life details at every family get-together - that's all there is to it.’ A cast-iron lie that his readers believe again and again with each story and each novel. Thanks to his style, thanks to his humour, thanks to the mixture of perspective and sentiment, and thanks to his refreshing insight into character.
When, in late 1985 - he had just become Dutch Ambassador in East Berlin - he was asked what the most important event of the year had been for him, Springer did not mention his posting to the strange parallel world behind the Iron Curtain, nor the umpteenth summit in Geneva, but a couple of literary facts: the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Kurt Tucholsky and the discovery of a lost poem by Shakespeare. Tucholsky because he had known exactly how to ridicule pomposity; Shakespeare because he had already put down on paper what makes us tick three centuries earlier: power, love, jealousy and desire. In that kind of literature, which is focused on the fortunes and motivations of the individual, history is merely a footnote.
Translated by Lindsey Edwards