Blueprint of a Youth
The cartography of a post-war home
It was a monumental five-storey building with sixteen rooms and a garden bordering on the Vondelpark in Amsterdam: a large, fairytale house in which you could meander to your heart’s content. The writer Wanda Reisel and her parents, brothers and sisters lived in such a house between 1961 and 1974. It was a period in which the Second World War cast a shadow over the young family (several of the Jewish family members had not returned from the war), without explicit reference to this ever being made. That was also the case with the death of the eldest son on Curaçao, a few years before the family came to live in Amsterdam. At the same time, the freedom of the sixties began to make itself felt.
Plattegrond van mijn jeugd (Blueprint of a Youth) is an original and creative novel in which Reisel takes the house itself as the leitmotiv. Memories surface in relation to the rooms, staircases, basements and cupboards. They are sometimes her own recollections and sometimes excerpts from the family history in combination with fictive passages in the form of short stories. The book is divided into sections with titles such as ‘Basement’, ‘Piano nobile’, ‘First Floor’, while the chapters bear names such as ‘Pavement’, ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Hallway’.
This calls to mind the novel Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec: a novel like a house, built on imagination. The writer owes her authorship to her youth in this house and all the narratives embedded in it.
Reisel’s memories are never sentimental; in contrast, they are playful yet intractable. How should you handle the great suffering of the previous generation? As the narrator remarks: ‘If you, as child, have had to imagine the Shoah or Santa Claus, then the rest is no problem.’ She explores imaginary boundaries and then transgresses them, as in the domain of love, where there is much hesitation and yearning.
The attractive feature of this book is the way in which the loose threads do not ultimately tie together. In this way, we see things from the perspective of an unhappy boy who is a postman, and from that of an escort girl who takes pornography videos to her father in hospital, ensuing in a poignant scene.
These lives are connected to that of the main character in some way, but exactly what the link is remains a mystery. It is a matter of imagination and, just as the author conjures up her youth in this book, she simultaneously demonstrates how everything is a question of writing, compactness, literature.