The Boy Who Found Happiness
De gelukvinder is a spectacular book for adolescent readers, in which Edward van de Vendel relates the eventful life of Afghan refugee Hamayun, a seventeen-year-old whose character is based on that of co-author Anoush Elman. Together with his family, Anoush fled from the Taliban, ending up in the Netherlands more or less by chance, after an incredible journey.
De gelukvinder is the first book in Querido’s new Slash series, initiated by Van de Vendel himself: a series of novels written by well-known Dutch authors and based on dramatic life stories of young people today, with the aim of introducing more realistic social issues into the world of the literary children’s book.
Although the series has educational goals, De gelukvinder is very much a literary novel. Van de Vendel cleverly avoids indoctrination and preaching by allowing events to speak for themselves. For instance, when Hamayun’s mother arrives in Iran, she expresses her newfound freedom by throwing her burqa into a litterbin. The only comment she makes is: “Well, that’s that then.”
The film-like character of the book is reinforced by its structure, which resembles a collection of scenes from a documentary. Hamayun writes the script for his drama teacher, who believes that the Western world needs to know about the suffering of refugees.
Hamayun throws himself into his school project, painting a vivid picture of his plight. The threat of the Taliban is truly frightening, as it slowly destroys Hamayun’s freethinking father, a teacher, and chases him from his homeland. The farewell from Hamayun’s grandmother and baby brother is painful – they stay behind in Afghanistan to allow the others to “flee by the fastest route”. The “road movie” section of the book, covering Hamayun’s months of flight, is absolutely gripping. And Hamayun’s “uprooted feeling” is deeply tragic – he describes this as “the sense that everyone else in the whole world has a house and work and friends […]. And that we have been cut off from that world.”
Although the story is intense, the tone remains light. This lightness of tone, together with the wide variety of realistic characters and Hamayun’s fascinating coming-of-age story, combine to make De gelukvinder a remarkable book with universal relevance.