Where Were You
Libris Literature Prize 2006
Waar was je nou (‘Where were you’) is filled, as so often in Schippers’ books, with parallel worlds. On the very first page, for instance, we meet a Turkish grocer who understands Dutch only when he’s in his shop but not when he’s outside; in Schippers’ universe only artists are capable of bridging two such worlds.
The novel begins when Ruud, the main character, closes the door behind him, then realises that he’s left his keys inside. He goes to his late mother’s house and examines her photographs (she was a keen amateur photographer). He sees sand whirling, hears kites flapping, and shoes clip-clopping. As he looks at certain images, he enters the photograph, cautiously at first, and as his adult self. He tries a croquette; it is spicier than today’s bland version, and afterwards is able to return to the present by assuming the position of the photographer.
But he takes increasingly greater risks: at one point he decides to try to bring back his mother’s brooch. That takes him back to the age of eleven and he is able to re-live a special night he spent with Chris, one of his mother’s girlfriends.
As we have come to expect from Schippers, objects play an important role: the Blue Tram to the seaside town of Zandvoort, movie posters, the lettering on a lunchroom window. Through the extensive use of the monologue intérieur and the shifts between present and past, sea dunes and city street, film and reality, Schippers has created a dreamy, magical atmosphere, without actually breaking the bond with reality.
Ruud tries to get back to the present, with the help of two vaudeville artistes – past masters at pulling the wool over people’s eyes. He goes to see Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., and suddenly sees his own photography shop on the screen. He tries to jump into the canvas image, just like Keaton, but something goes wrong. After getting back together with Chris, he decides to stay there. He’s been locked out. He cannot go back, but he doesn’t mind.
If there is a message in this novel, then it is that art – in this case, literature – makes it possible to do what so many people wish they could do: bring back the past. Where were you is a nostalgic novel, full of yearning for a time long past.