Johannes Klabbers is a Dutch/Australian writer and posthumanist therapist, currently living in Europe. He is the author of I Am Here: Stories From A Cancer Ward (Scribe Aus/UK 2016), which tells the story of an academic in the Australian outback who takes a voluntary redundancy and reinvents himself as a secular pastoral worker in the largest cancer hospital in the southern hemisphere. The Australian described it as “wonderfully insightful”. His website is johannesk.com and he tweets @johklab, is on Facebook @johkla and blogs on Medium @johannesk.
Offices of the Coöperatieve Raiffeisenbank, St. Jacobsstraat, Utrecht, The Netherlands by night in 1957. Photographer : L.H.Hofland. Used by permission. Copyright: Het Utrechts Archief.
Johannes Klabbers is thinking through what it could mean to write postfiction. This is the third of four postfiction pieces to be published in Tincture in 2017, all available in the journal and online. See also postfiction.space.
When I was thirteen I thought being Dutch was really crap. So boring and useless. We couldn’t stop our country being invaded by the Germans. And we couldn’t beat them in the World Cup final either, even with Cruijff and after being 1-0 up within the first two minutes. We made one ugly little car called a DAF that no one wanted, and everything had an old people smell. We spoke a stupid language which you could only use to communicate with other boring Dutch people. Things and people from England and Amerika, on the other hand, were exciting and interesting. When the opportunity came to go and live in England where the Beatles and the Stones (and the Who! and the Kinks!) were from, I couldn’t believe my luck. But the harsh reality was that the life of a fourteen-year-old schoolboy in the outer suburbs of London in the early 70s was no picnic. And I was still Dutch!
What would have happened if I’d gone to New York, or for that matter, LA, or Berlin? But I didn’t. I went to London and, eight years later, an Australian woman I met there, bought me a ticket to Australia.
A fragment from an old song drifts up from the unconscious. The voice says:
You stumble, sometimes fall.
Pick yourself up!
Hold yourself up to the light!
Duck your head!
Watch for the blade!
If you could pick any time in history after 26 January 1788 to arrive in Sydney, Australia, what would it be? I’ll leave that hanging for a moment but I bet you know what my answer is going to be.
Which Australian band would, in time, become the subject of a Belgian Trivial Pursuit question?
There was a particular heady quality to the music made in Australia (and by Australians elsewhere) in the 80s. If I made a list, someone—perhaps a fan of the Frontier Scouts or XL Capris, would complain about them being left off the list—except they would be on it, so it wouldn’t apply, but you get my drift. It was an optimistic music, deadly serious—except for Dave Warner from The Suburbs—but without the darkness or the desperation of the music I had played and listened to in London.
Everything was possible.
I was a nomad. I didn’t stay in any place in Australia long enough—except in Wagga Wagga, and you might say I stayed there longer than I should have. But in 1995 I was completely broke to the point where I’d get off the bus at the stop before mine to save ten cents on the fare. I didn’t have to do anything except show up in Wagga and they offered me a job teaching at the University then and there. I guess you might say I was in the right place at the right time. For more than a decade I had money, and earned a PhD doing what I would have done anyway, talking about Artaud and smashing up cheap portable CD players with a wooden mallet while they were playing as people watched and applauded—and polluting the minds of several hundred students. I learned how to think. I learned how to read people. I learned how to say what needs to be said and I learned to ask questions that have to be asked.
But I didn’t learn how to hear what people were saying until after I left. That was in 2011.
Darling you are not moving any mountains
You’re not seeing any visions …
Fast forward twenty-odd years and I’m no longer in Australia. I am back where it all began.
I found an image online of the main shopping street in the city where I live and where I was born and raised, taken at night in 1957. I imagine my twenty-two-year-old mother (she turned twenty-three on the day I was born) walking through that street, as the foetus which was to become what I am was forming inside her. It is a different place now but the form of a city changes faster than the human heart, as Chris Kraus wrote, quoting Eleanor Antin who was quoting Baudelaire.
I am here.
It is summer.
This has been one of the most difficult years of my strange life.
The Dutch have a thin, exaggerated way of being exuberant when welcoming or thanking someone or enthusing over something—to a point that borders on the hysterical. They applaud wildly and start singing boisterously and in unison at the drop of a hat. This is strange to me. In my mind the Dutch are a dour, serious people, quite reserved, known for their sobriety and bluntness—and their willingness to exploit your weakness. If they haven’t taken advantage of you, the Belgians say about the Dutch, it’s because they haven’t thought of it yet.
I’ve never bought as many dud things that needed to be returned as I have since moving back to the motherland. It is broken, it doesn’t work at all, it has a hole or there is a stain on it, or a part of it is missing. It is easy to return things to the shop for a replacement or a full refund. No one bats an eyelid. It happens all the time.
—That’s okay, you can just return it.
—But I don’t want the hassle of returning it. If I buy a thing I just want it to work.
You can also take it back because you changed your mind, and if you buy something in a shop and the same item goes on sale there within two weeks of purchasing it, by law they have to refund you the difference. It’s a consumer paradise.
There are a myriad of ways in which you can be humiliated by a Dutch person, but they only work if you’re also Dutch. I have an effective disguise: I can look and sound exactly like an Australian. But sometimes I forget to be an Australian. There is a particular, patronising way of being rude to someone in Dutch while smiling and apparently being very nice, but it too only works if you’re sensitive to the nuances of the language and the mannerisms. You signal your preparedness to be humiliated by certain linguistic cues, or perhaps it’s just that you look slightly sheepish about being in the world and occupying space in it, and then it begins.
Or is this just a thing that middle class people the world over are adept at?
I don’t remember, but it’s possible that I didn’t notice this when I was a child here since I wasn’t at all interested in what adults did or said or how they behaved. This was when boys would sit on me and extinguish their cigarettes on my hand. Even at the age of forty I could point at one of the scars, but now that I am nearly sixty it seems to have faded—either that or my eyesight has deteriorated—but I well remember the weight of the big arse of one of the boys, Arthur, on my chest.
Is it possible that most Dutch people just aren’t very nice? And most people aren’t interested in making the effort to be nice? And that when a Dutch person is rude or awful it is a lot more upsetting to me because it happens in Dutch? I don’t have the linguistic and cultural defences a normal Dutch man my age would have acquired against being humiliated. I am an actual Dutch man-child and they are sitting on my chest. Why would someone want to be mean to me!? If they tried this in English I would laugh at them, but when I am wearing my Australian disguise they wouldn’t even try. And no Australian would ever do this to me. It wouldn’t work—and anyway why would they bother?
A year later when I see online that the price of something is a certain number of Australian dollars I think yeah, but how many Euros is that? Is money the measure of everything? Try language. I’ve almost given up trying to speak Dutch. You might say I am anti-Dutch. Get over it, I want to say to Dutch people. Why not focus on English, or another language which is understood by more people than your obscure lower German dialect.
But this is our shibboleth, they would say if I said that and if anyone took any notice of what I said. This is how we know ‘our people’. This is how we keep certain things amongst ourselves. This is how we know someone is not one of us.
I have arrived. I am home—or rather, this is my home now, even though this land is strange to me. I’ve invested … am investing … almost everything I have left—not only my money, energy, but my gumption, my wherewithal, and my ability to think about what it means to belong, to not belong …
Someone, I don’t know who, an anonymous person in a call centre that I’m speaking to in Dutch, is unexpectedly generous and funny. She does something for me that she doesn’t have to do and I am grateful. I am unable to express my gratitude in the way that I would like. I search for the right words but they don’t come.
Thank you for your time. I understand that you didn’t have to do this. I am truly grateful for your generosity and your kindness.
How do you say that in Dutch?
Dank … is all I am able to get out.
Maybe it’s enough.