An enchanting novel full of landscapes and memories
‘Why did you take me with you?’ Willem van Toorn asks his father forty years after the event he still vividly recalls meeting his uncle Geurt in the middle of the war, on a deserted railway platform. ‘You didn’t come with us at all,’ his parents reply. Van Toorn wonders: ‘If I can be so mistaken, then how much of what I remember is true?’ It is a beautiful start to a novel about memories. The River is the river Waal, symbol of the countryside of the Betuwe, home of the writer’s parents before they moved with their family to Amsterdam.
The book also has a contemporary component: the struggle against dike improvement in the 1980s and 1990s. The decline of the river landscape is cleverly linked with how life no longer centres around the family. ‘He who denies the past cannot meaningfully consider the present and the future,’ is the telling quotation by Jacques Le Goff at the front of the book. As my parents live on in me, Van Toorn seems to want to say, so should we also see a landscape as having a history, and that should be treated with respect.
The cover of The River shows a photograph of the author’s parents as a young, engaged couple, ‘well-dressed, both with a hat, young people in the prime of life, a bit Scott Fitzgerald, but then in the Betuwe.’ The book is a tribute to these two people. Van Toorn has written a melancholic, but nevertheless powerful and lively novel, a climax to his career. ‘Great,’ is the last word, spoken by the eleven-year old main character, who, when smoking his first cigarette, cannot understand how anyone can like it, but realises that this marks his entry into the adult world.