A moving journey back to a first love and a circle of friends from a colonial childhood
F. Springer is a born writer who has had the advantage of having spent his entire working life as a diplomat. His books’ settings reflect his postings and range from New York to New Guinea, from inland Africa to Tehran at the time of the fall of the Shah. Recently books Springer has drawn on a more distant but no less exotic past: his childhood in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), his internment in a Japanese camp, and his repatriation against the backdrop of Asia’s post-war independence struggle.
Springer captures and conveys local colour vividly and yet with cool, ironic humanity. His main characters are intelligent, but plagued by self-doubt. Their intentions are honourable but their well-meaning cautiousness leads to hopeless entanglement in situations that are as awkward as they are funny. Springer is a master of understatement.
Kandy, his latest novel, tells the story of Fergus Steyn, a retired Dutchman who was repatriated from the Dutch East Indies as a fourteen-year-old. Steyn agrees to address a congress about his personal experiences during his journey to the Netherlands. He retrieves the trunk he left with his family for safekeeping long ago and dusts off his old diaries, without realising that his attempt to reconstruct the past will rake up an almost-forgotten episode, one whose importance he had never fully appreciated.
Fergus and his mother didn’t return straight from the Japanese camp to the Netherlands. They first sailed to Ceylon on board the hms Venerable, and were taken to a camp in enchanting Kandy. While their mothers tried to trace their husbands, Fergus and his friends had an idyllic time before returning to normal life and Fergus fell in love for the first time with Pinkie, a small skinny girl with dark-brown eyes. They played in the forest with bows and arrows and let their imaginations run wild.
Looking back, Fergus Steyn becomes obsessed by two questions. First, was Pinkie, whom he never saw again after leaving Kandy, in love with him too? And second, did he really shoot the wretched servant they nicknamed Tea Cow on his last day? Fergus traces Pinkie to a London address but his sentimental journey turns into a catastrophe: Pinkie’s husband barges in just as the two old friends are about to express their feelings. As usual, Springer provides no easy solutions in this melancholy, perfectly balanced novel.