Cli-Fi: Fury in the Dutch Republic
A tragicomic, bitter cheerful parable about climate change, refugees and populism
With its typographic experimentation, Adriaan van Dis’ explosive new novel is surprisingly different from his previous work. It’s not a book about his Indonesian family nor a travelogue, but a searing, sometimes grotesque dystopian novel about the Netherlands today.
The story opens in 2030. The Dutch royal family has been overthrown, and the country is ruled by a populist president and his brutal junta, the Patriotic Guard. A hurricane sweeps across the country bringing widespread flooding, and amid scenes of panic and chaos, people flee their homes in search of safety. Meanwhile the media, under government control, doesn’t even mention the catastrophe.
A motley crew of climate refugees wash up on Uncle Kees’ farm in The Hollow, a village on the river floodplain. One of them, 84-year-old Jákob Hemmelbahn, retired librarian and son of Hungarian refugees, is reminded of the political situation he fled from before, and he begins recording the bizarre life stories of his fellow refugees, starting with his girlfriend Talétha, and Kano, who talks in rhyme.
Van Dis gives each character a distinct voice. Sometimes he uses short sentences and first-person narrative. At other times the prose is richly descriptive, sparse, shouty or aphoristic – but it bristles with urgency throughout.
That urgency is the point of the novel. Through his furious narrator, Van Dis shows what awaits us unless we take action: our freedom has already been restricted by the coronavirus crisis, right-wing climate deniers have become increasingly vocal, and if they manage to seize power we’re in for a world of trouble. And then there’s self-censorship, exemplified in the novel by Puma, who constantly looks over the narrator’s shoulder. In the era of cancel culture, everyone fears to speak their mind.
In The Great Derangement (2016), Amitav Ghosh asked his fellow writers to use fiction as a way of opening readers’ eyes to the danger of climate change. With his new novel, Adriaan van Dis more than rises to the occasion.