The detailed story of a tragicomic marriage
Although long divorced, the translator, Barend Fijnvandraat, and Hetty Oudewortel live together in a creaky Amsterdam house in Sarphatistraat. Barend and Hetty can live neither with nor without each other. It is an awkward situation, perfect for Henk Romijn Meijer, who has always shown himself a gifted observer of human failings.
From the very first page of his new, meaty novel, Oprechter trouw (True Fidelity) Romijn Meijer strikes home mercilessly. One evening, Hetty comes home from her philosophical art society and bursts into Barend’s room without knocking. She recoils in shock. There is her ex, sitting with his legs apart in an armchair under the reading lamp, playing with himself. With that image, the author pushes us with sarcastic pleasure into our own armchair, forcing us to take sides.
Barend is a grouchy but charming intellectual who, as he says himself, ‘wastes his days recreating other people’s work’. He picks his words carefully, scattering marvellous quotes left, right and centre. Busy translating Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Barend, like Lawrence, is filled with erotic yearning. He muses continually over girls and never stops thinking about his thing, and how he longs ‘to whip that thing in and out of them’.
Hetty, on the other hand, protests furiously that her needs are modest. ‘She had never wanted to be anything other than a happily married woman, but no one had ever told her how to become one.’ Nevertheless, she, too, is overwhelmed with longings, not so much to be sexually satisfied, as to be heard and seen, and understood.
Romijn Meijer dismembers the impossible relationship between Barend and Hetty with a razor-sharp scalpel, in old-fashioned satirical style. What’s more, after a hundred pages, he suddenly reveals that the couple are as old as the hills, Barend being no less than eighty-four. ‘The story of these two people is, I hope, exemplary,’ the narrator says, ‘it shows that growing older isn’t only gloom and misery.’
Dutch readers were able to recognise in Barend Fijnvandraat the old poet, translator and womaniser, Adriaan Morriën. Even without this knowledge, though, Oprechter trouw is highly enjoyable. As fictional characters, Barend and Hetty remain majestically intact in this ‘potpourri of dilapidated impressions’. Not because of the underlying reality, but because Romijn Meijer has portrayed his two main characters viciously and yet with cheerful compassion.