Raw, rough, merciless and wild!
Josse de Haan is from Friesland, a northern Dutch province with its own distinct character and language, Frisian. His monumental novel Kikkerjaren (The Frog Years) was written in Frisian, but the Dutch translation nevertheless managed to impress the rest of The Netherlands. Which is as it should be, because De Haan’s strong, raw style and poetic images are truly exciting. ‘Kikkerjaren is raw, rough, merciless, wild and maladjusted,’ one daily newspaper says, ‘This book wants to be great, and it is.’
De Haan tells the story of two writers who co-author a book about their childhood in the Frisian countryside. Former poet, trouble-maker and hard-drinking womaniser, De Grusk relates his sexual and alcoholic exploits from a flat in a modern suburb, and starts by hiring nine prostitutes, each representing a woman in his life. His stories of experience are criticised by the other writer, a childhood friend of his, De Lytsk. The latter’s stories go back further - a shy boy, and an outsider from an early age, he was a keen observer of village life in the Frisian village of Snyp. His contributions, set in the nineteen fifties, paint a vivid picture of a vanished world. Gripping, for instance, is the scene in which De Lytsk describes how some of his schoolmates blew up a few frogs using drinking straws, and then made them explode with catapults. ‘For a few seconds it looked like the frog would empty, but then it swelled up again on both sides. The abused animal croaked louder and more frantically than the first time. This time it swelled all round. Its eyes bulged further too. It clutched at the ground, but it failed again. Its legs dropped down. This cruel game, which gives the novel its title, made De Lytsk vomit.
He was equally affected by the death of his grandfather, as well as the confusing sexual encounter with his teacher Annach - one of the many highlights of the novel.
The present of the two writers, now older and - perhaps - more cynical, is not short of emotive scenes either, like the one at De Grusk’s son’s hospital bed where he lies in a coma. Kikkerjaren is a stunning, multifaceted novel that blends past and present, city and countryside, romance and pornography, realism and poetry.