The Underbelly of the New Century

On the Remarkable Novel of Manners Bonita Avenue

Siem Sigerius, the vice-chancellor of a university in Enschede in the Eastern Netherlands, is busily pressing the flesh at a reception, when he suddenly recognises his daughter. Nothing special about that, except that he recognises her as the nude model on his favourite porn site.

That in itself is a good starting point for a novel of manners, but for Dutch readers there was another reason why Bonita Avenue attracted attention. The author incorporated the Enschede firework disaster into his book: the explosion of a firework storage depot on 13 May 2000, which wiped out an entire neighbourhood and caused hundreds of casualties and 23 deaths. In Bonita Avenue the explosion coincides with the moment when Siem Sigerius’s happy, perfect family is torn apart.

In the course of 2011 Peter Buwalda, previously a journalist and a publisher’s editor, metamorphosed from an unknown beginner into a best-selling author. The novel of manners, which took him four years to write, was on the Bestseller 60, the official Dutch list for book sales, for over a year. A number of awards and nominations completed the wealth of acclaim.

Explaining the success of Bonita Avenue is not that easy a task. Certainly Buwalda writes powerful, graphic prose that does not pull its punches. One reviewer talked of a style that was ‘cutting edge (…), rich, vivid language, charged with testosterone.’ (HP/De Tijd, 6/10/2010) A catalogue of all the ingenious turns of phrase in this book, always surprising but not so thick on the ground that they get in the way of the plot, would be going too far. In addition the novel, because of its rock-solid structure full of cliff-hanging moments, is quite simply compulsive reading.

A winner

Yet it is mainly the characters that make Bonita Avenue unforgettable. In an interview Buwalda stated: ‘I’m fed up with wimps in fiction’. That is why Siem Sigerius, the main character, is a winner, someone who has proved his exceptional qualities both physically and intellectually. In the distant past he played competitive judo and would have taken part in the Olympic Games if he had not been ruled out by an untimely injury. While he was recovering from that injury his talent for mathematics was discovered. His mathematical studies won him a Fields Medal. In the course of the novel the very media-friendly vice-chancellor will also receive an attractive offer from the world of politics.

However, Siem inevitably has an Achilles heel: his children. In the first instance the trouble seems limited to Wilbert, the son of a previous marriage, who has become mixed up in crime. Wilbert is ‘a criminal who had worked his way into crime like a corkscrew’. But that is not all. Sigerius suddenly sees a shocking likeness between his foster-daughter Joni and a nude model. In the course of the novel it becomes his mission to find out whether or not he is wrong. Is Joni really using her body as a commodity?

Buwalda tells the story from three perspectives. The chapters narrated from Sigerius’s point of view take place in 2000. The others are set (mainly) in the present. The focus is on Joni (who has become a successful businesswoman in the porn industry in California) and on Aaron, Joni’s ex, who has retreated to a village near Brussels following a psychotic episode. He does not know the course of events in Enschede and tries to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together.

Sex and class distinctions

Bonita Avenue appears to be first and foremost a novel about sex, and about how two successive generations deal with it. For Sigerius and his contemporaries sex is a rather embarrassing necessity, preferably indulged in in silence. For Joni and Aaron sex has in fact been split in two, there is the role that it plays in a relationship, but besides that it is simply merchandise. Joni is not a sad prostitute-by-necessity, but a smart young woman. All she does is to play the cards dealt her by nature to the greatest possible advantage. Aaron is halfway between Joni and Sigerius. He has no problem with photographing his girlfriend for a porn site, but blows his top in a big way when he suspects she is about to ditch him as her lover. That dichotomy proves fatal. However, in the figure of Siem Sigerius, Buwalda broaches a second theme. Siem Sigerius has broken free of his working-class roots, has climbed the social ladder, and loses his self-control when his origins rear their heads. Here Buwalda touches on a very sensitive issue. In the 1990s the Netherlands saw itself as a model state, a finished project whose main features were open-mindedness and professional political administration. But in the twenty-first century the breakthrough of populist politics obliged the nation to take a painful look in the mirror. The Netherlands consisted not only of a head, but also of an underbelly, which was constantly making itself felt. Sigerius’s struggle is the conflict that seized hold of the Netherlands in this new century: the head that realises with dismay the existence of the rest of the body.

The nice thing about Bonita Avenue, nevertheless, is that Buwalda never forces his theme too crudely down the reader’s throat. The picture (political, social, erotic) that he paints of the period is not a vehicle for an unambiguous message. Ambitious novels sometimes have the pernicious tendency to reduce everything that takes place within their covers to a single moral, a single line of thought. In Bonita Avenue readers are allowed to interpret and, if they wish, judge for themselves.

The following excerpt from Buwalda’s novel immediately precedes the moment when Sigerius makes the fateful discovery about his daughter. During a ceremony at the university his two lives collide: his ex-brother-in-law seizes this perfect moment to tell him that his son Wilbert has been released early from prison. The suppressed aggression implicit in this passage foreshadows the blood-curdling hand-to-hand fight between father and son later in the novel. America is mentioned in this excerpt. Sigerius and his family lived there for several years, while he was writing his doctoral thesis. Their house, on Bonita Avenue, gradually becomes a symbol of a moment when their lives were perfect. A moment in the past, of course.

By Mark Cloostermans
Translated by Paul Vincent

First published in The Low Countries, 2013