At Oxygen Books we’re privileged to read some of the very best writers, past, present and future. Sometimes it’s the great and the good, and that’s perfectly fine but sometimes – and this is the most exciting part of the job– it’s being introduced to a new writer who’s absolutely extraordinary and makes you cry (and laugh) on your commuter rail journey and reminds you of when you first read J D Salinger.
Thomas Olde Heuvelt is one such writer. We were introduced to Thomas by Dutch translator Laura Vroomen for our city-pick Amsterdam volume.
Oxygen were excited to be able to include his ‘Harlequin on Dam Square’, in which a human statue has the perfect vantage point for observing the city’s population and for letting his imagination getting to work on them. It’s the wit, it’s the humour, it’s the detail, it’s the left-field vision that makes this writer so exceptional and compelling.
Thomas, born in 1983, has already written three novels – with a fourth out early next year, plus appearances in many anthologies and magazines. Laura, his translator, very kindly showed us a novella, ‘The Boy Who Cast no Shadow’, and it was this that convinced us (if we needed any convincing) that here is a writer who is just waiting to be discovered by UK readers.
We offer a short extract from this story for you to be convinced too. Magic realism? Fantasy? Surrealism? An allegory for our current dark days? These descriptions don’t really do justice to this story of a fragile glass boy who was not made for these times. Already it’s won a major Dutch prize and is soon to be published in the Postscript anthology from PS Publishing, so see ours as a sneak preview. This is a major talent: other prospective UK publishers please remember you read it here first:
My name is Look. You’ve probably heard about me, in newspapers or on TV. I’m the boy without a shadow. You can shine spotlights at me all you like, but it won’t make the slightest bit of difference. Physicists say I’m an evolutionary miracle. The Americans used to say I was a secret weapon, owned by the Russians that is, because they didn’t think Al-Qaeda had the necessary know-how. Christians say I’m a Divine Messenger. Mum calls me an angel, but of the earthly variety. But I’m none of these things. I’m Look, that’s all. I just wish I knew what that meant.
It’s something to do with my genes, they say, but they don’t know what. Molecular structures and the effect of light, blah-blah-blah. It’s all the same to me because whatever it is they can’t fix it. You won’t even find any shadow under my chin, armpits or ribs, no matter how you illuminate me. Apparently, it makes me look rather two-dimensional. I don’t actually know what I look like because I have no reflection. My left hip bears a scar in the shape of a question mark. I got it when the midwife dropped me as she held me up in front of the mirror. Mum told me that only a piece of floating umbilical cord was visible and that the midwife fled the room screaming. The photos of the delivery showed plenty of people going aaaw and coochie-coochie but no baby. The only images ever captured of me are the scans of mum’s belly. They use sound instead of light.
‘You should be proud of your genes,’ mum and dad always say. They’re the founders of the Progressive Parish, a local political party in Waspik that worships difference. General meeting: ‘We just adopted a little Filipino kid.’ ‘No kidding! Our son is gay.’ ‘Really? Well, ours has no shadow.’ Three-nil, nobody can beat that. Mum is a Zen Buddhist and does yoga, while dad would rather cook for the homeless than for us. In the interests of others (read: my parents) my own best interests tend to get overlooked.
Until I was seven, they managed to keep me more or less under wraps. But you understand that it was bound to come out. One day two men in dark sunglasses snatched me from the class-room, bundled me into an armoured car and stuck a needle into me. When I came to I found myself at an army base in the United States, where a team of scientists and agents spent four months examining and interrogating me. During the first three weeks I kept claiming I was from Mars and that my goal was total world domination, but then they became extremely impolite and started threatening me. I got really pissed off when I woke up one morning to find that they had cut a piece of skin from my backside to grow a culture. I decided to suspend all cooperation with immediate effect, but that same week I was told that they had no use for me and reunited me with my parents. To compensate for the inconvenience we were offered a feature in National Geographic. At first my parents refused and considered legal action, but when they discovered that the men who had kidnapped me were above the law and that the ensuing media hype was a veritable goldmine for the Progressive Parish’s coffers they soon came round.
And me? I became a celebrity. Thanks a bunch. On Oprah they wouldn’t let me wear make-up because they figured that a floating, painted mask without any eyes or mouth would look too sinister on TV. A completely invisible boy struck them as a nice little stunt, which meant that everybody who wasn’t actually in the studio just saw a set of moving clothes and that I had to pick up objects and stand behind an infrared machine to prove that I was there. To Oprah’s question about how the scientists had treated me I responded in broken English: ‘I find that the government has no right to experiment with my ass.’ My wisecrack cost them three million in hush money but that didn’t stop the accusations of sexual abuse from pouring in. Idiots.
One-all, you’d think. Not by a long shot. In the years that followed our front yard was overrun by camera crews eager to catch a glimpse of me – which is technically impossible. Twelve circuses and twenty-three cabinets of curiosities offered astronomic amounts for the privilege of exhibiting me in their freak shows. I’ve been canonized 268 times and have 29,000,000 hits on Google, as many as Brad Pitt. It’s a lark, mum and dad, this business of being different. Until it’s you who’s different. Everybody knows who I am. Everybody, except me.
Splinter once said that your dreams make you who you are. But I never dream. Loads of people say this, but I really don’t dream. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what dreams are. The countless EEGs that I’ve had show that my brain performs absolutely zilch activity during REM sleep. They never established a conclusive link with my condition, but duh. I think it’s why I have no friends, no feelings and no imagination. I lack a goal. I lack depth. Do I mind? No, it leaves me cold.
All I want in life is to find my reflection. If I have no idea what my face looks like, how will I ever know who I am? And you know how it is with saints and celebrities. They get crucified, and while they watch the life seeping out of them the people piss on their shadows.
The arrival of Splinter Rozenberg changed everything.
I was fourteen by then and living a relatively quiet life. The hype had died down, as hypes usually do. We had moved a couple of times within the village and in exchange for a statement saying that I hadn’t been abused during my stay in the US two men in dark sunglasses were stationed in front of our house for a year, removing pilgrims and other loonies from the garden path.
Obviously this whole business had an effect on my reputation in school. I have no friends, but because I’m tall I have a lot of nerve where others don’t. They tend to avoid me, which is how I like it. Now and again I punch someone, not because I like it, but because I have an image to uphold. And let’s be fair, it’s not all that obvious, unless I’m in front of the mirror. I wear long sleeves. My face is the only give-away. With the sun on the right it looks as if I’m luminous on the left. Mum once tried to hide the effect with make-up, but I ended up looking like a bit of a tranny, so thanks but no thanks.
Even Jord Hendriks draws the line at verbal abuse, which means that I get off lightly. When he’s in a good mood he calls me ‘His Lightness’. When he’s in a foul mood it’s ‘dim-witted light bulb’ or just ‘freak’. He claims that without a reflection I don’t actually exist, except that my ugly mug hasn’t twigged yet that I’m dead.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration if you ask me. If the stories are to be believed I’m no oil painting, but it’s not as bad as all that. Lots of artists, including my grandad, have made impressions of me. None of the drawings look alike, and I don’t think any of the faces suit me. The charcoal drawing on the cover of People is definitely a joke, because it creates the illusion of shadow. Some show a boy with a broad, roughly hewn face. Mum says that grandad’s is the best likeness. But grandad also did a portrait of mum which makes her look more like a man than a woman, so that gives you an idea of how credible mum’s words are.
Too bad that Jord Hendriks is such an incredible dickhead. The other kids are afraid of him. I think he’s hot. I mean, just look at that body in the changing room. Holy fuck!
Of course that’s the last thing to say to him if you know what’s good for you. One disorder is more than enough, trust me. Mum and dad would love it and that’s exactly why I won’t tell them. They’d drag me to gay pride parades and conferences on tolerance organized by the Progressive Parish, and then we’d be back to the same old media circus. I don’t think so. The internet isn’t the answer either. It’s easy enough to tick the Yes, I am aged 18 or over box, but chat-rooms give me the boot because I’m supposedly too scared to appear on webcam.
Whatever. The thought of Jord Hendriks finally putting his mouth to a better use and my right hand offer adequate release for a healthy boy like me. Exclamation mark, smiley face.
Splinter was the new boy in class and thus relieved me from my victim status. Thanks in part to his mother, Mrs Rozenberg, who had made the unforgivable blunder of accompanying him to school that first day to explain his condition. I can still see them standing there, side by side, Mrs Rozenberg looking like she was lecturing a group of toddlers and Splinter staring glassy-eyed into the classroom. Splinter was always glassy-eyed – literally, because his eyes were made of glass. As was the rest of his body. It was one of those rare mutations you get in certain gene pools. Polished, he was a perfect mirror. He had some flexibility and was able to move his limbs, but in slow-motion, like Neil Armstrong on the moon. Facial expressions were quite a different story however.
Mrs Rosenberg, ordinary flesh and blood, beseeched us to think of him as a china cabinet, which wasn’t all that far from the truth actually. He wasn’t allowed to play games during recess or PE, because a well-aimed football would be the death of him. Pulling a jack-ass was obviously out of the question. When we heard that word from an old bag like her, we shrieked with laughter. Mrs Rozenberg was delighted, thinking she was hip. Splinter knew he was doomed.
From day one Jord Hendriks and his mates fired metal missiles at him, non-stop, from paperclips to coins and from small biro springs to the pens themselves. They were competing to find out which part of the body to aim for to elicit the opening note of Man in the Mirror. ‘Your dick, all right?’ Splinter said when the teacher had left the classroom. ‘Will you please stop now? What you’re doing is dangerous.’
Oops, that only made things worse. Splinter knew how fragile he was and that paperclips and coins would probably cause no permanent damage. But accidents will happen and when a biro launched by Jord scratched his neck he grassed on him.
Big mistake. Suspensions aren’t forever. After some third-year kid acting on Jord’s instructions concocted a story to lure the science teacher out of the classroom Jord grabbed hold of Splinter and put him on the workbench. Splinter screamed. Not with pain – he didn’t have any nerves – but to catch a teacher’s attention. He didn’t put up a fight because he knew that any wrong move would break him in two.
‘I’ve always wanted to be a glassblower, shitbag,’ Jord said as he ignited the Bunsen burner. ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who in the land will have the crookedest dick of all?’
About three or four boys formed a cordon around them to keep the softies at bay. The rest of the class smirked or pretended not to notice. And me? I was glad it wasn’t me.
Jord stopped at Splinter’s left little finger. He heated the tip and squeezed it with a pair of pliers, so Splinter would never need another spoon to stir his tea. Then one of Jord’s mates ran out and made a lot of noise about Splinter having had a welding accident. Anyone who blabbed, we were told, would suffer the same fate, glass or no glass.
I was convinced that Jord wouldn’t get away with it. But I was wrong. Feel free to dismiss it as yob culture. We give each other hell and we cover each other’s backs – a question of self-preservation. Sooner or later the bubble of deceit and lies will burst. But that’s too easy. Time has taught me that we live in a world full of figures like Jord Hendriks, a world that thrives on the destruction of its rare miracles and where people live under a blanket of smog, the stench of sameness.
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‘(city-pick Amsterdam) A new kind of travel guidebook … Gone are the ubiquitous hotel descriptions and restaurant appraisals wrapped in the rhetoric of the seasoned travel reviewer. Instead a posse of more than seventy writers takes us on a story of collective reminiscence and comment through the heart and soul of Amsterdam … Work from luminaries like Ian McEwan, Alain de Botton and David Sedaris (whose visit to Anne Frank’s house defies belief) are collated into an entirely original whole, easy to dip into for inspiration or ponder over as a long read. Crucially, despite its sidestep of the normal constraints of travel writing, it still makes you want to hop in a plane and explore, it just leaves you to seek out your own experiences rather than tread in the footsteps of others’ Palladium
The latest instalment in this much-lauded series, city-pick:
Eclectic, challenging and deeply involved in its subject, it takes you to deeper, more diverse places than you could ever hope to go elsewhere. The range of writing on offer here is staggering - juxtaposing Ian McEwan with Tobias Smollet, Anne Frank with present-day 'Dam bloggers. As with all of the series, there's a recognition here (which other literary guides seem slow to pick up) that cities are international spaces these days, and that the stories of those who arrive or leave or pass through are as much part of cities' fabric as their museums, landmarks and famous men.
Thus we have reflections on immigration, chronicles of British hedonists aprowl for fun and games forbidden at home, and Croatian immigrant Dubravka Ugresic evoking the dark side of those pleasures in the streams of trafficked human flesh pouring in from the impoverished societies of the east.
You wouldn't exactly use a city-pick as your guide to a foreign city - as the series' editor says in our interview, it won't tell you how to get to the airport - but if you could only read one book before you went, this would have to be it. Translated Fiction
I have a confession to make: I love travel guides. I have a massive collection, with a significant section of my bookcase dedicated to them. Books about places I've been and places I'd like to go; places I've lived and places that I'd probably prefer to just read about.
But the problem that I've found with most travel guides is that, while they give you plenty of information about the places to go and things to do in a particular place, they don't give you much of a sense of the character of the destination.
Until now, that is. The editors at City Pick have put together a fabulous collection of travel writing, about some top European destinations. These books don't tell you about specific attractions; instead they give you the flavour of the city, with samples of writing from locals and visitors, fictional characters and real people, famous writers and those who are less
The City-Pick guide to
or train to
City-Pick Amsterdam is separated into several themed chapters, covering everything from the artists of the city and its famous canals, to life in the city during World War II as well as recent events. This organisation means you can get a more holistic view of the city - and it's not always glowing reviews either. No place is perfect and the City-Pick guide gets
into the nitty-gritty details of life in
By the time I finished reading this book, I felt like I had a great understanding for not just the sights of
For anyone who's been to
Recently, Booktrust caught up with Heather Reyes, the editor of city-pick: Amsterdam, the latest instalment in the frankly rather brilliant city-pick series of alternative literary travel guides. We talked to her about the dark sides of cities, the headaches of compilation, and the importance of translation...
What initially gave you the idea for the city-pick series?
On our first trip to Athens, we had all the guide books but they didn’t quite ‘get under the skin’ of the city – a city somehow different to what we’d expected. My partner, Malcolm Burgess, said, ‘What we need is a modern anthology.’ No such thing seemed to exist so, spotting a ‘gap in the market’, we decided to fill it. The idea was literally born on the slopes of the Acropolis!
> What are the processes of selection that go into your choice of passages? What makes you choose a text, and what might make you leave one out? (I'm thinking in particular of the much-remarked lack of Joyce in the Dublin edition)
I’ll deal with Joyce first: it grieved me sorely (as a great lover of Joyce) to leave him out – but his estate is notoriously difficult to deal with and we were advised not to try. So there are pieces about Joyce as compensation. (In the Paris volume, we had to leave out Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast because his American agency asked a sum we couldn’t afford.)
The selection is partly personal, but the main criteria are good writing and relevance to the experience of visiting the city. The books are divided into titled sections and the extracts need to fit those. Variety is the keyword – variety of length, genre, tone, etc. (We even use blogs.) We also like to give opportunities to young and emerging writers, and to include writing by as wide a variety of nationalities as possible. We use writing from any period if it is relevant, but the majority is contemporary or near-contemporary - one of the main differences from many anthologies. Of course, it makes it more expensive for us because you have to pay quite a lot for material that isn’t out of copyright.
> One of the things I love about the city-pick series is that they refuse to shy away from the darker aspects of their subjects - Dubravka Ugresic's quite harrowing piece on the sex industry springs to mind. Is this something you think is important?
Yes, definitely. All cities have their dark sides and we wouldn’t be giving an accurate picture of the place if we ignored this. While our aim is to celebrate cities, we don’t want to be a glorified travel brochure.
> Were there any specific challenges in compiling the Amsterdam volume?
The fact that I don’t speak Dutch! But the challenges were tied up with the pleasures. We have more translated material in ‘Amsterdam’ than in the others: the Dutch Literature Foundation funded most translation costs – making this possible. I worked with an excellent Dutch co-editor, Victor Schiferli (himself a writer), who selected previously untranslated material for which I organised translators from the Foundation’s list of approved translators. Finding the right translators for the different kinds of writing - plus checking that they were available to complete the work within our time-frame - took time. (With Berlin, our main translator was also co-editor, which was simpler.) Only a couple of these pieces didn’t make it into the book. There was the problem of writers or publishers having to approve translations, and sometimes the translators wanting to change their original version, or checking details with authors. This took us close to the wire in terms of our print schedule!
> Would you recommend that anyone use city-pick as a sort of alternative guidebook?
A valuable supplement to a good guidebook: we don’t tell you how to get to the airport but give lots of different ‘takes’ on the city. We emphasise the contemporary, but cities are their history: you can’t understand it without getting to grips with its past. Why is Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge so called? Why does the renovated Reichstag emphasise ‘transparency’? The past is gathered to form the present.
> Do you hope to make any changes in how visitors experience these tourist cities?
Yes. We like to think we enrich their visit, turning it from a two-dimensional, picture-postcard experience into a three-dimensional one. The wonderful thing about cities is that there’s always something new to discover.
> Finally, what's next? Do you have more cities lined up?
I’m currently finishing Venice (due out November) and we’re collecting material for Istanbul (out next spring). Other cities planned include Mumbai, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, New York…
‘The runway lights of Schiphol lay in the fields like a fallen Christmas tree. I thought: this is where I want to die.
- Marcel Möring‘s sentiments as he returns to Amsterdam from a trip overseas. They’re taken from his book In Babylon, and appear in a new anthology of writing about the Dutch capital – city-pick Amsterdam.
I don’t usually write reviews (no reason why not, I just don’t), but this new book combines two things I really like –
Beginning with Möring’s arrival, this collection guides the reader through the city in the words of over 70 writers. Clive, in Ian McEwan‘s novel Amsterdam, takes us from the airport by train to Centraal Station. We get lost with South African born author, Richard Mason, as he wanders along the Herengracht. And Dirk van Weelden shows us the
Van Weelden’s piece, from his novel The World of 609, is one of several that have been translated especially for this anthology. As well as discovering the city, the editors – Heather Reyes and Victor Schiferli – hope to introduce ‘an often translation-phobic Angolophone readership’ to some highlights of Dutch literature. There are certainly some excellent excerpts from the work of Martin Bril (a personal favourite), Abdelkadi Benali, HM van den Brink and Flemish writer, Stefan Hertmans.
This carefully considered book is divided into sections including Must see…, Art seen in
All 100+ stories are fairly short – most little more than a page long – making it easy to dip into, even for those on a short weekend visit. But this panorama of views from such a selection of world-class writers will surely show born and bred Amsterdammers a new angle on their city.
If I was a tourist, I might like a map showing some of the main highlights mentioned, but then again this isn’t a travel guide. These tantalisingly short snippets might just lead you to discover some writers you might never otherwise have encountered. I’ve certainly got a few new names to look out for the next time I wander through one of the city’s bookshops’
Jim Dempsey, Foolish Notions http://jimdempsey.wordpress.com