My Father’s War
A personal and literary victory
The autobiographical nature of Adriaan van Dis’s work can be partly deduced from the fact that the surname of the main character in his debut novella, Nathan Sid, is an anagram of his own. Like his character Nathan Sid, Adriaan van Dis had a father who came from the former Dutch East Indies and lived in a house full of repatriated people in the dunes near the Dutch town of Bergen aan Zee.
Nathan Sid reveals a boy who is caught between oriental rice and Dutch potatoes. He was conceived over there but came into the world in the Netherlands. The rest of the family shares a Dutch East Indies past but he doesn’t belong anywhere. Where the perspective gave his debut novella a touch of pathos, looking back on that same remarkably split childhood from the perspective of his fonies leads Van Dis now to a harder confrontation.
The immediate cause is the death of one of his three half.sisters which brings the large and confusing family back together. The main character’s father, a strict soldier, died long ago, when his son was only eleven. For a long time he had hated and feared him, because of the daily beatings he had received. Now the son is a grown man and he tries to find out what made his family tick. It turns out that his father’s cruelty was the result of his own loveless childhood and a war trauma. The son is obliged to modify his feelings of hate.
The scoresettling which this book at first seems to be, turns into a document of affection from a second generation victim, but without the hate being blunted. That is Van Dis’s tour de force: he wants the truth to shatter the lies that surrounded his childhood while, at the same time, admitting how much he resembles his father. Merciless and stylistically refined, the writer Van Dis remains just as divided as his main character and this is what makes the novel so fascinating. The stories, rumours and scandals are very like those which inspired Louis Couperus to write a number of great East Indian-Dutch novels. Too many books about fathers and sons deteriorate into laments which force the reader into the role of listening psychiatrist. Van Dis elevates the private to the universal; his novel unravels the complexes which are shared by many who have emigrated or been repatriated.