Melancholy and bitter slapstick
Adriaan van Dis’s Indonesian family background has played a major role in many of his novels, including Indische duinen (My Father’s War), which has been translated into many languages. With Familieziek, he has produced a minor masterpiece that is already being hailed as a ‘classic’ in the Dutch press. As the subtitle ‘a novel in scenes’ indicates, Familieziek consists of short episodes from the life of a family repatriated from Indonesia to the Netherlands.
These scenes are narrated by the son in a humorous yet poignant manner. As the son of the Indonesian Mr Java, his mother’s second husband, and as stepbrother to three sisters who grew up in Indonesia, the boy is somewhat the odd one out. He looks through the eyes of an outsider at this remarkable family to which he belongs, like it or not. He is a cuckoo in the nest. He calls his father ‘Mr Java’ and his three sisters ‘Sister 1’, ‘Sister 2’, and ‘Sister 3’. Mr Java is an austere, rather awkward father who occasionally attempts to be nice to his timid son, but spends most of his time staring out the window, silent and surly, at a world that no longer exists.
The boy, who is not allowed to attend school but receives home tuition from Mr Java, cannot meet his father’s expectations. Nevertheless, despite everything, he does love his father, as his words clearly indicate. He wants to belong to his father’s world, to that of his three sisters, but he simply cannot. He is repeatedly pushed out of the nest. It is this tension between love and hate, attraction and rejection, that gives the novel its striking power. The boy refers to this power as ‘head power’. “Be like a reed: bend, lie down when the storm comes, be small if you have to, but always rise again?, is what Mr Java advises his son. The son heeds this advice: he rises again whereas his father eventually ends up in a psychiatric institution.
Familieziek is a touching novel about will power, about the will to survive of a son who is subjugated by a father.