Subtle relationship with language
K. Schippers is not a writer of clear-cut novels. He always puts forward an idea, a philosophy or a surprising insight and lets this determine the course of the story, and not the other way around. This is less common among novelists than poets or essayists. That said, it should come as no surprise that in Schipper’s multi-facetted oeuvre, which he began in the early 1960s, genres blend fluently into one another: his poetry has a rather prosaic quality to it; his essays are not infrequently short stories, and his novels contain poems and observations you might expect to find in an essay.
The latter is also true for his novel Zilah. The writer came across this meaningless word in an old British book full of code words for telegrams, which intrigued him tremendously. In the novel Zilah is a beautiful, intelligent woman of about thirty, who works for the Course Advertising Agency. She herself is someone who has to think up words for things that do not exist yet, like a name for a new beer. When Zilah goes to the Trademark Office to register the brand name “Dumb Blonde? for the beer, on a lark she also decides to buy the rights to “The Dutch Language.?
That decision has far-reaching consequences. In the course of the novel it turns out that for 12.50 Zilah has in fact acquired control of the language. The things she thinks and writes actually happen. Zilah can make storm winds die down or cause a love from her youth to bloom again. She can now to turn her fantasy into reality in every possible way and determine the course of events. Not everyone in the book is happy about that. For the officials at the Ministry of Special Affairs (a hitherto unnoticed government department, a typical Schippers invention), it is a spanner in the works. It so happens that Special Affairs had hatched a scheme to sell the Dutch language to America and make English the new official language of the Netherlands. When it turns out they do not even own the language, they set off in ruthless pursuit of Zilah.
Zilah is the sort of book you read on the edge of your seat. In part because you want to know how it all ends, but also because of the stimulating linguistic experiment K. Schippers performs under your very eyes.