The Song and the Truth
A big novel about growing up between two cultures, colonial life and the threat of a European war
Throughout her writing career Helga Ruebsamen has been something of a writer‘s writer. Not because her short story collections are accessible only to connoisseurs of fine prose: on the contrary, the critics have always praised the clarity of her style. No, the relatively limited extent of her readership has always been an injustice. Her new novel, Het lied en de waarheid, has finally set things right. This big novel, in which Ruebsamen subtly presents her childhood memories of a country house in the Dutch East Indies and the horrors of the Second World War, is nothing short of sensational.
How to explain this sudden success? First of all, the novel‘s material is pure gold. The book begins with Ruebsamen‘s alter ego, five-year-old Louise Benda, surveying enchanting surroundings. With an artistic writer mother and a dedicated doctor as a father, Loulou‘s imaginative and sensitive perspective makes the family home in the Dutch East Indies paradisiacal. The garden is inhabited by spirits and when the lights are turned off Loulou talks to ’night people‘ in a language of her own invention. The idyll is disturbed only by letters from a fearful unstable Europe. Evil is on its way. Furious and despairing in the face of the oncoming war, Loulou‘s father decides to go back to Europe to help his Jewish family. The whole family leaves paradise on a ship. They disembark in France, spend some time in Paris, and arrive in a cold and misty The Hague in the winter of 1939.
Loulou‘s journey from her motherland to her fatherland is an unimaginable shock. She has been plucked from a light-hearted existence in the fresh air and set down in rooms ’behind lined curtains‘. When war breaks out, things go from bad to worse. Loulou and her father have to go into hiding in the Dutch countryside. Miraculously they survive, even when the Germans torch the farmhouse they‘re hiding in. It‘s only in the book‘s last sentence that the little girl, emotionally broken and wrenched away from her world of enchantment, is free to commence her journey back.
Despite its impressive autobiographical elements, this novel‘s strength lies not so much in ’the truth‘ as in ’the song‘. Ruebsamen‘s style and her capacity to creep into the little girl‘s perspective are astounding. Identifying with an external world that starts off idyllic and becomes more and more menacing, Loulou‘s inner conflict has such tragic power that readers cannot help but be won over.