The title of this book needs a little explanation. ‘Patatje oorlog’ is a typical Dutch dish, literally translated as ‘chip war’: chips with two or three sauces and chopped onions. Sounds innocent enough, but the two fourteen-year-old protagonists of this book actually tend to visit the snack bar for other reasons, such as to buy cigarettes with the help of a friend who’s a little older than they are.
Patatje oorlog, by newcomer Derk Visser, is written in a true-to-life style that is surprising and sometimes challenging. The girls that Visser writes about are certainly not goodie-goodies. Joy and Kelly, who have already left the days of childhood quite some way behind them, are bored stiff. They spend their time wisecracking about suffering in the third world, about one of their mothers and her half-eaten candy knickers, and about the benefits of flavoured condoms: ‘boys like it and your hands stay clean.’ The only thing that these girls talk about with any love and respect is their bench in the dunes, their secret place, where they’ve been meeting since they were children.
Otherwise it’s an endless cynical protest about the world, which they believe has very little good in store for them. They are neglected by divorcing parents, who turn up with new lovers in tow (sometimes scantily dressed) at the most inappropriate moments, and one of the girls has lost her younger brother, who drowned in the sea, not far from their bench.
But is everything they say really true? Maybe they’re exaggerating, maybe they’re inventing much of their song of lament. This thought gradually dawns on the reader, and so the story becomes increasingly poignant as we are carried away by the imagination of Joy and Kelly, which is as vivid as it is bleak. The author’s background in film reveals itself here: the sharp, highly subjective text consists mainly of dialogue that occurs in one location, so this story could easily be transferred to the theatre or cinema.
Visser’s intention is to write in the language that teenagers use, about the subjects that preoccupy readers of this age. This can be a risky endeavour, as was shown by his debut novel Patchouli, where the result was a little too chummy and forced.
However, in Patatje oorlog he has found the right tone. He deserves recognition for demonstrating his ability to create interesting teen literature, and, above all, for the literary achievement itself.
By Pjotr van Lenteren