This year the prestigious Libris prize for Dutch literature was won by Tommy Wieringa. A few days ago the jury chose his novel These are the names (Dit zijn de namen) from among five books that had been nominated. Wieringa won already a few other prizes with his earlier books, but the Libris prize will give him a lot of additional fame and also a check of 50.000 euros (over 60.000 US dollars). With this prize he definitely belongs to the important contemporary Dutch authors.
I had bought the book already some four weeks ago, but had not yet started reading in it until two days ago. Now that I have read more than half of it, I am inclined to agree with the jury one hundred per cent. If you look for a fast moving story line with a lot of suspense or a juicy story like Fifty Shades of Grey, you had better give this book a miss. But for a lover of the Dutch language and for the person who wants to read an unusual, but fascinating story, this new Wieringa novel is a must.
However, besides admiration, I also feel a degree of jealousy. To be able to handle your mother tongue in such a magisterial way must be the absolute summit of satisfaction an author can have. Each sentence is worth to be read slowly, for most substantives are accompanied by carefully chosen adjectives; verbs are skillfully nuanced and every situation sketch calls forth an razor sharp image.
I was, in particular, touched by a statement of the main character of the book: Pontus Beg, a chief of police in a small Eastern-European city on the edge of the savannah. The man loves reading books on eastern philosophy, and especially works by Confucius. Beg concluded that, if Confucius were in charge of a given country, it would be his first priority to improve the way in which the people use their national language. ‘For if they do not use the language correctly’, he says, ‘they do not say what they mean. And when people do not actually say what they intend to say, no major achievements can be made. And when people do not achieve much, the arts and morality cannot prosper. And as a result, the justice system will be inadequate. And without an adequate justice system the nation does not know what to do. For that reason a country should not tolerate a sloppy use of words, for that is the all-important thing’ (p. 35).
Today I sat on a terrace near the small harbor of the town where I live, and while enjoying my coffee I was thinking about this statement by Confucius. I concluded that Confucius may well have been correct. The ability to carefully put your thoughts into words may be much more important that many people think. If you are in doubt whether or not there are lots of people who do not have this gift (or who simply do not make any effort to do a bit thinking before touting their opinion), you should from time to time visit the website of some popular newspaper (such as the Dutch Telegraaf) and look at reader comments. I do this from time to time, and I am always amazed about the sheer quantity of prejudice, verbal abuse, ignorance, insults, and utter nonsense that is hurled into digital space. Yes, perhaps there is a direct link between the verbal deficiencies of a major part of our society and many sad aspects of our contemporary world.
Well, whatever may be the case: my quality newspaper called Wieringa’s book one of the best books that has lately been written in the Dutch language. Reason enough to quickly continue my reading of it.