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Richard de Nooy

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Gardener of No-Man’s Land

(Homage to the Dutchman with the Bohemian soul)

Dear Guus,

Because you deserve more than a review, this may prove to be less than a review. But I am sure you will forgive me, because I know you would prefer me to speak from the heart, even if is from a thorny thicket off the beaten track. Less poetically – this review may prove to be more about the author and the man, than about your book, De Tuinman van Niemandsland.

The title, The Gardener of No-Man’s Land, is a reference to the Czech nation, who have over the centuries been overrun by Swedes, Turks, Hungarians, Tatars, Prussians, Austrians, Germans, Russians, and now the Dutch, myself included, seeking cheap winter sports resorts. The Czech response to their invaders is vividly encapsulated in the opening quote, which you attribute to movie director Miloš Forman. However, a little web research reveals that Mr. Forman was probably quoting the Nazi Reinhardt Heydrich, who was Reichs Protector of Bohemia in the Second World War. In his first report to the Gestapo, following the occupation of Czechoslovakia, he said: “You have to be careful. If you put pressure on the Russians or Poles, really hard, you will break them. Czechs you will never break, because they bend. They bend and they wait, and if you release the pressure, they swing back.”

Then again, Heydrich may have been quoting one of the inhabitants of Lidice, who populate your book. But that is unlikely, because they are certainly not a talkative bunch, and I think you will agree that the ability to bend and wait depends largely on your ability to ignore the fact that you are bending and waiting. And so the characters in your book seem trapped in a state of perpetual oblivion, in which all emotion has been reduced to rituals that seem more in synch with the forces of nature than with the dynamics of society. Your book captures this to perfection. A river comes to mind. Not a white-water ride or even a languid float downriver, but a daily visit to the same spot on the bank. The beauty lies in the subtle changes from day to day, the languorous pace, the occasional bits of flotsam and jetsam that wash up on the shore, and indeed, if you wait long enough, you will eventually see the body of your enemy drift by, as the ancient Chinese proverb promises.

That said, your book seems out of synch with the man I have come to know. Much like myself, you seem intent on moving and shaping your world, without making concessions to the all too familiar demands and wishes of that world. Your knowledge, generosity and energy are astounding, your CV and globe-spanning network are awe-inspiring, you have been in the company of many of the world’s greatest writers. I can boast none of these things, but during one of our conversations, you suggested we are both vrije vogels, free birds, who chart their own course, unshackled, oblivious of borders. But I sometimes fear we are of a flightless, water-bound species, swimming against the tide, fighting to get where we need to go. Perhaps we should stop thrashing and let the current carry us gently downstream, to deposit us wherever it sees fit. Then again, you seem to have found peace in your writing, in your leisurely stroll down to the river’s edge, where you gently bend and wait, to swing back twice as hard. I shall try to capture some of that Bohemian soul this winter, when I next invade Rokytnice nad Jizerou. But I fear the Czechs will be as unwilling as ever to reveal their secrets.

(Guus Bauer’s book De Tuinman van Niemandsland is published by Signatuur.)

 

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