A Book Full of Longing

Tommy Wieringa and Joe Speedboat

Inspector Morse’s first name was Endeavour, but that was kept a secret until the end of the last instalment. Just as embarrassing, especially to its bearer, but also to the narrator of Tommy Wieringa’s novel Joe Speedboat (2005), is Joe Speedboat’s real name: Ratzinger (and this before the present Pope was elected). His first name makes it even worse, so I won’t reveal what it is. It knocks him right off his pedestal for the narrator Fransje, who is in a wheelchair and who idolises Joe Speedboat for being so elusive and clever and adventurous. In an explosion that he causes in the school’s washroom, for example, he loses part of his hand. And from odds and ends he manages to build a small aeroplane, and even gets it off the ground. The revelation of Speedboat’s real name is however only the beginning. Very cleverly and over time, Fransje plays his own trump cards and it is he, who at first didn’t seem to have much of a chance in life, who ends up being the winner after all.

After two novels published in 1995 and 1997, Tommy Wieringa (1967-) made a new start with Everything about Tristan (Alles over Tristan, 2002), the story of a biographer who goes to great lengths to work himself into the life – about which little is known – of a poet and who finds that the more he discovers, the less he has to write about. For if he were to reveal a certain well-kept secret, his whole project would become superfluous. In that book one was struck for the first time not only by the clever and well-developed plot, but by the distinctive and original style of the writer, his sharp powers of observation and surprising characterisations. In Joe Speedboat Tommy Wieringa develops all these things even further and this has put him in the spotlight. It also earned him the F. Bordewijk Prize, and in October 2006, in Frankfurt, the English translation rights were sold to Portobello Books.

It is definitely the whole approach which makes this novel so special, the way it presents himself, the atmosphere it creates, the intriguing effects, but especially the tone of the story. When after his recovery Fransje once more wakes up to his surroundings, he can see very clearly how drab everything is. It is hard to believe that an Afrikaner family, with a daughter PJ with whom everybody is infatuated, would want to come and live here. Fransje is the son of a demolition contractor in a depressing village on the waterside, which is under threat of being completely cut off from the outside world by the building of a new motorway with a noise barrier but no exit road. This isolation accounts for a somewhat singular way of life, an environment dominated by demolition debris and wrecked cars which is evoked by powerful images and a language that is direct and down-to-earth, coarse and simple and as apt and practical as a monkey-wrench. Still this book rises far above a mere sociological sketch about people who are the product of their environment.

For the story is completely permeated by the idea of entropy, the natural law that says that a closed system inevitably degenerates into breakdown and chaos. ‘Entropy, Fransje’, Joe explains, ‘is the law of irretrievable loss’. People watch powerlessly as their lives disintegrate. The challenge is to get away from it. But that can be difficult when you’re in a wheelchair. That is why there is so much longing in the book, a longing for heights and faraway places. Joe’s widowed mother brings a Nubian back with her from Egypt. After some time, impelled by homesickness, he builds a felucca and disappears without trace on his maiden voyage through the Dutch delta. Speedboat sees an opportunity in Fransje’s handicap: he maps out a career for him as an arm wrestler and they travel all over Europe.

It all works out very well, but it doesn’t bring the hoped-for satisfaction. For after a spectacular win over a hefty opponent, Fransje still has to see Speedboat disappearing into a separate bedroom with PJ, while he himself is so much in love with her. The deciding factor comes at the end. Speedboat enters for the Paris-Dakar Rally in a vehicle he has built himself, because he wants to track down the lost Nubian. He thus stands for movement, progress. With Speedboat out of the way, Fransje gets what he has always longed for: warmth. Again according to the law of entropy, as explained by Speedboat: ‘Energy with which nothing happens, which is never processed, turns into warmth. Warmth is the lowest form of energy.’ That’s good enough for Fransje, though, who turns his loss into pure gain.

This book has a very particular charm. The writing is clear and realistic and at the same time imbued with an enchanting imagination. It is simple and easy to read and yet very intelligently conceived with striking details that stick in one’s mind. The world it evokes is totally recognisable, but in its depiction it also acquires a mythic quality. Much of this comes from its wonderful, original and disarming language. With this book Tommy Wieringa has undoubtedly gained a solid reputation. And it has also earned him an additional 42 euros. The Tzum Prize, the prize for the best sentence in a Dutch narrative, was won in 2006 by this sentence from Joe Speedboat: ‘The exhaust pipes shone like trumpets, the world seemed to wilt from the deafening noise as the boys stepped on the gas with the clutch held down, just to let everyone know they existed, so no one would doubt it, for something not reflected doesn’t exist.’ As well as a handsome cup Wieringa received the same number of euros as there are words in the original Dutch version of this sentence: 42.

By Jos Borré
Translated by Pleuke Boyce

First published in The Low Countries, 2007