The Enlightened Narrative Art of Arthur Japin
In the course of a mere decade, Arthur Japin (1956-) has amassed a literary oeuvre of which many would be envious. He made his late literary debut in 1996 with The Magonian Tales (Magonische verhalen), which amazed connoisseurs with its fine-meshed compositions. When, one year later, he published The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi (De zwarte met het witte hart), it was clear that here was an important writer who also knew how to appeal to a wide audience. His historical novel about the vicissitudes of two young Ghanaian princes in nineteenth-century Holland was right on target. One probably has to go as far back as Hella Haasse to find a Dutch-language writer capable of portraying historical characters with so much finesse and flexibility. Japin’s combination of accurate documentation and a highly subtle sense of empathy became the hallmark of his storytelling. And what he had done for the nineteenth century in 1996 he did for the eighteenth in 2003. In Lucia’s Eyes (Een schitterend gebrek) was once again a historical tale with universal appeal. There is no novel in Dutch literature that so eloquently brings the cosmopolitanism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to life and at the same time warns of the intellectual bankruptcy of rationalism when taken too far. What is the secret behind the resounding success of both Japin’s novels? What might be the recipe for his epic narrative art?
On the lookout for settings
Japin only emerged as a writer when he was forty. During all the years when he was working away in secret, he was single-mindedly preoccupied with one and the same thing – art, and especially with the practising of it. Japin loves glamour and glitter, and originally wanted to become an actor. His father was a theatre critic, and as a child he was often allowed to accompany him to both sides of the footlights. He loved the beautiful scenery, the exuberant costumes and the artistic ambiance. He claims he could dream himself away into a different, better world.
Being an only child, as a teenager Japin was bullied a great deal at school. Added to which, things did not go too well for his parents. His father eventually committed suicide. Japin was thirteen years old at the time. ‘Magonia’, his very first story, is a touching tribute to his father. In it, Japin tells how his father stimulated the imagination of his son by drawing his attention to the wonderful world above the clouds where everything was possible: ‘Above the clouds I sought against my better judgment for a glimpse if not of my father then of the ancient land that he told about. In Magonia, that middle-world above our heads, airships […] would travel and King Arthur ride across the sky.’ In short, Japin had reasons enough to let himself be borne aloft on the wings of his imagination to a fantasy world where he could rub shoulders with every conceivable kind of character. As the main character confesses in this story, Japin most probably was continuously ‘on the lookout for settings’ where he could feel at home. Japin’s father and his solitariness as a young man apparently sowed the seeds of Japin’s burgeoning desire for historical panoramas in his literary work.
Japin is a dyed-in-the-wool artist, but even so he did not just go round with his head in the clouds. He studied Dutch language and literature for two years, but dropped out because of the aridity of the academic discipline and moved to the world of the stage. He studied song and dance, and occasionally found himself on the opera stage – even on the film set of Flodder. As a thirty-year-old beau garçon, he travelled with his girlfriend Rosita Steenbeek to Rome to try and attract the attention of Federico Fellini. Exit the girlfriend, who Fellini briefly managed to win for himself, and exit the applied artist Japin, who after innumerable peregrinations in the artistic world realised that he wanted to follow his own path.
In 1986, he got wind of the strange history of the two Ashanti princes Kwasi and Kwame. In their day Ashanti, a region of present-day Ghana on the west coast of Africa, was a kingdom on the African Gold Coast. Dutchmen landed there in the 1830s, drawn by the slave trade. Kwasi and his cousin Kwame, however, were members of the royal family, and as such they were given preferential treatment by the Dutch. As black African princes they ended up in the Biedermeier Holland of the time, with all that this entailed. Japin portrays them at a boarding school in Delft and paying a visit to the royal House of Orange. They develop friendships – including royal ones – but despite their successful integration at the school are never completely accepted. They also have completely different natures. Kwame, the older of the two, has the soul of an artist and tends to react impulsively, while Kwasi (literally ‘Sunday’ in Ghanaian) is very much a Sunday’s child. He takes a more cerebral attitude to things and to his own misfortune, as for example when he is bullied at school. He ends up in the higher circle of students, studies in Weimar, where he meets Hans Christian Andersen, and finally spends his old age on a coffee plantation in Java, where he happens to meet Multatuli.
Clarity of mind and limb
Japin’s characterisation of the historical settings in which these real-life characters evolve is excellent. He even went to Ghana himself to do fieldwork, in the footsteps of the genuine princes. Many novels, however, tend to collapse under the weight of the documentation that the writer presents. Japin has a sixth sense that enables him to apply his erudition and historical knowledge in judicious doses, keeping a vigilant eye on the individual life-story of his characters. And this is where Japin’s sense of empathy comes in. Apparently he only needs a few documents and stage props in order to devise an existence that feels authentic, just as it could have been back then. In other words, he possesses the magical art of conjuring up people of flesh and blood out of his paper characters – people with whom the reader can identify, just as Japin has already done in his own imagination. In this first major novel you can see how Japin portrays his own biographical obsessions – being bullied at school, the loneliness of the outsider, and deliverance from his own mind thanks to the sensuality of nature, of love or of art. One crucial theme in particular spans his whole symphonic composition: the liberation of the head by the heart. This liberation can only be called successful if the impulses from the heart coincide with those of the brain. The person who, at his wits’ end, seeks solace in the sensuality of love, nature or art will achieve a life-saving result if he knows how to reconcile the whims of sensuality with the laws of the head. Kwasi, Japin’s narrator, is not only literally but also metaphorically someone who combines black and white. Japin, however, knows enough about life and art not to end up with a puppet show of mechanical characters with as a happy ending the dialectical synthesis of the opposites they embody. Kwasi survives his cousin Kwame, who does not allow himself to be swept away by his passionate nature. Kwasi, though, behaves as anything but a sovereign wise man. Even when, in his old age, he looks back on his adventurous path through life, Kwasi remains a tragic Sunday’s child. He has survived the storms of integration, but he has always remained on the outside of ‘the full life’, even though he apparently participates in it. Although blessed with young children at a ripe old age, he realises that he has always been an outsider, despite all signs to the contrary.
Clarity of mind and limb, a sensuality that will not be thrown off balance by anything or anyone: that is the lucidity that Japin is searching for with his protagonists. These moments of enlightenment are rare, but oh so precious, and they mostly occur at times of great emotional turmoil, as when a loved one dies. In Kwasi’s case this is the suicide of his cousin Kwame, who is unable to face the chaos of his life any longer: ‘An intoxication arises in which everything is clear. For a brief instant, life shows its true face. It looks you straight in the eyes. Suddenly, it is no equal opponent whose moves you see through. That is not something melancholy; on the contrary, it casts light on things. Literally. It is en-lightening.’
Personal and historical enlightenment
The reactions to this first novel were almost unanimously favourable, with a few rare exceptions. Jeroen Vullings had his reservations about the sometimes overly long-winded documentary detail, which according to him did not always serve any real purpose. Hans Warren was the only reviewer who was definitely negative. He denounced Japin’s concept of historical docufiction, which mingled original documents with invented fragments. After the matchless success of this first novel, Japin had apparently had enough of excessive historical research and wanted to use his own adventure with Rosita Steenbeek and Fellini as the background for a filmic narrative about la dolce vita in the Rome of the 1980s. Director’s Cut (De droom van de leeuw, 2002) is again the confession of a person looking back at his life from the threshold of death. In this novel, this character is the film director Snaporaz, the alter ego of Fellini. One problem with this novel, though, is that here Japin has no historical backdrop that can lift the biographical story and thereby give it a greater stamp of authenticity. The story is too thin to be more than a somewhat coquettish play of words about a piquant little incident that he happened to be involved in (unknown female friend does it with famous director). He falls into the trap of exhibitionist confessional literature, as personified by Adriaan van Dis and Connie Palmen. Too little for an author such as Japin, whose debut as a novelist showed what he had to offer.
Evidently Japin himself considered this novel as a lightweight interlude, for a year later he comes out with In Lucia’s Eyes, a historical novel that is in no way inferior to his debut novel. This time, Japin has delved into and unravelled the writings of the well-known seducer Giacomo Casanova. There he discovered Lucia, a fascinating woman who had an affair with Casanova at the age of fourteen. According to Casanova, she was his first real love and one of the two women whom he ever wronged. Japin himself does not know the ins and outs of the matter. But armed with this anecdote he still wrote a convincing novel that seamlessly merges the historical period of the Enlightenment with human enlightenment as a goal in life. The individual life stories acquire universal dimensions, for the insignificant personal life of this Lucia turns out to be the whole history of an era and of a mentality that is still very much in vogue even today. You could compare his novel with The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag who, with the aid of an Italian romance of Lord Nelson’s, also manages to evoke the image of a whole age. Japin, though, writes less informally about the eighteenth century. He makes the Enlightenment re-echo right into the twenty-first century, so that his committed novel outdoes the somewhat gratuitous stylistic exercise of the American essayist.
History great and small
Using his well-tried recipe, Japin has his main character at an advanced age thinking back to past events. Lucia takes the reader with her to the dazzling pyrotechnics of garden parties in North Italy, the excavations of enthusiastic amateur scholars in Herculaneum near Pompeii, the anatomical sessions in a Paris lecture hall, discussions in feminist salons, the theatres of the Venice of the time and of so-called tolerant Amsterdam, where Jews and whores had a rather hard time of it. Sexual relations between Christians and Jews were still forbidden, as Lucia – a Christian now fallen on hard times – learns to her cost and disgrace: ‘Next to freedom of religion and residence, they [the Jews] are not allowed one single privilege and because they are often wealthy and can pay hefty fines, they are fanatically persecuted. I wonder if Messieurs Voltaire and Descartes, when praising Dutch freedom, are actually aware of this.’ Because of this, Lucia is picked up by the police during a raid and ends up in a so-called ‘spinning house’, where together with other ladies of easy virtue she is exhibited as a kind of fairground attraction and for a fee people are allowed to throw things at them.
The clever thing about Japin’s novel is the self-evident way in which he links the personal fate of Lucia (and Casanova) with the whole historical setting. For Lucia is not merely a famous pick-up girl or a random streetwalker. At the age of fourteen, she is intensively tutored by a private teacher for the beau monde and thus comes in contact with the mentality of the Enlightenment. When her mentor dies and she too almost succumbs to smallpox, she assumes the name of her enlightened teacher. As Galathée de Pompignac she gains access to a circle of femmes savantes in Vincennes, just outside Paris. She becomes the companion of a rich widow who likes to philosophise with her about the importance of intuition compared to the far too predominant rationalism of the time. Japin stylises the life story of Lucia-Galathée into a real case-study on the strengths and weaknesses of the enlightened rationalism about which the intellectual elite of the day were so enthusiastic. Lucia experiences in her own person how futile any strict, sensible control of life is. The book concludes with her saying farewell to old Europe and crossing to new America because she can no longer stand the straitjacket of European rationality and can see no future for herself there. To deny nature makes no sense at all, let alone to put it on the rack. Casanova’s rationalist contemporaries (and Casanova himself) are, according to Lucia, ‘afraid of what they are unable to understand and therefore attempt to uncover everything, down to the tiniest little secret.’
With this abdication from the totalitarian regime of reason Japin ends the confession of his sharp-eyed Lucia. Her farewell to Casanova and to an exaggerated rationalism is thus not only a personal, amorous settling of accounts but also a life-philosophical choice. Through the informative, sharp dialogue Japin brings this tour de force of projecting the universal into the personal to a good end. As a reader, you really do feel sorry that in a moment of enlightenment the female main character takes to her heels and heads for the land of promise with a wealthy client. She supposedly died there, in New York, in 1802. The response to this fable of enlightenment was so great that Japin has recently made a selection from Casanova’s works for the innumerable readers who were eager for more. The critics too sang the book’s praises. ‘It’s a painful story that arrives at profound insights into the nature of love, but it’s spiked with bodice-ripper suspense and humor; it’s an intensely private testimony to one woman’s peculiar survival, but it’s laced with a fascinating survey of eighteenth-century intellectual history. Brace yourself with all the skepticism you want, you’ll still be seduced’: so Ron Charles of the Washington Post wrote of the novel’s English translation. When Japin was awarded the Libris Prize for Literature for this novel in 2004, the jury’s report spoke of ‘a high point in Dutch literature’. There was one dissenting voice; one reviewer, and one only, found the characters forced and spoke of ‘lifeless set-pieces’. Meanwhile, Japin’s collected short stories were published under the title Collected Stories (Alle verhalen) and he wrote three novellas. The Big World (De grote wereld) was the Book Week gift of 2006. It dealt in depth with a strange occurrence during the Second World War. Due to the actions of the Nazis, two midgets find themselves on the road and get mixed up in a maelstrom of adventures.
This untidy novella is not of the same standard as The Sound of Snow (De klank van sneeuw), two novellas where Japin draw heavily on his own past as an actor. ‘Thaw’ (Dooi), the better of the two, is a short, icy Christmas story that deals with a Christmas Eve spent by a lonely female singer in a chilly motel. Following a black-out, she has allowed herself to be persuaded to appear once more before an audience and sing excerpts from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. She is subject to hallucinations and believes she can hear a man in the adjacent room who is also singing. She tries desperately to get a grip on her feelings. ‘People believe they have to have strong emotions. Completely wrong. Through the head to the heart. Not the other way round.’ Japin leaves it open whether his protagonist finally succeeds in gaining control of herself again or, while singing in the snowy air, meets her end on the motorway. Once more, however, Japin asks himself what a life in clarity would look like. For the singer it is obvious: ‘My sensuality is not of this age, but is pure and intellectual, that’s why it’s not understood!’ Most probably, this is also Japin’s creed. It is to be expected that by now Japin is busy planning a new major historical novel that yet again is a quest for an emotionally intelligent way of life that can serve as an anchor in turbulent times. Let us hope he allows himself enough time for this. He no longer has to worry about securing a place for himself in literary history, even though he has only been active as a writer for the past ten years. The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi and In Lucia’s Eyes (now also made into a play), his two historical novels, are already true classics.
By Frank Hellemans
Translated by John Irons
First published in The Low Countries, 2007