The Fourth Wall
A sparkling new collection of travel stories
from the author of The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi
The publication of De zwarte met het witte hart (The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi) in 1997 established Arthur Japin’s name as a writer. This voluminous, bestselling novel about the tragic story of two Ashanti princes Kwasi and Kwame, who were offered as a gift to King William I in 1837, can compete with the work of writers like Marguerite Yourcenar and Hella Haasse. In a beautiful, polished style, Japin blended fiction and historic fact into a striking whole.
In the short-story collection De vierde wand (The Fourth Wall), Arthur Japin returns to the structure of his 1996 debut, Magonische verhalen (Magonian Stories). Each of the stories in that book expressed the same glimmering longing for utopia. Or for Magonia, as the land of dreams was called in his collection. De vierde wand is characterised by a similar thematic unity. Each time he undertakes a distant journey, the writer realises that the most beautiful trips do not take place in exotic climes, but in his own fantasies. His book is a subtle but forceful plea for the imagination.
For this reason Japin has, in De vierde wand, alternated a number of classic travel stories about Cyprus and Réunion, Lisbon and Barcelona and the African Gold Coast – where he does research into the story of Kwasi and Kwame – with autobiographical ‘Departure Stories’. In ‘First Departure’ and in ‘Last Departure’ the writer relates how important imagination has always been as a temporary departure from reality. As a little boy he made his bed take off in his dreams and fly high over mountains, deserts, ports and towers: ‘The backdrops flashed by at great rate, without my even needing to move. These early adventures made more of an impression on me than the journeys I later undertook by plane, train or boat. For some reason they almost seem more real. At any rate, more important.’
It is no coincidence that Japin uses the word ‘backdrops’. As real as the countries and cities in his travel stories are, no matter how precisely he depicts the history and the local colour – he can’t see the world as anything but a stage, with people walking around as actors and extras. That idea, he writes, also comes from his childhood. In ‘Last Departure’, Arthur meets the well-known Dutch pantomime actor Rob van Reyn, who teaches him how to maintain his own image of the situation being acted out on the stage: ‘The stage is a room with three walls. You have to build the fourth wall yourself, then make yourself at home.’
Japin still takes that piece of advice to heart. During his trips he often plunges into adventures, adopting committed and vulnerable positions – on impulse he participates in a demonstration by Greek women against the Turkish dominance of Cyprus – but is just as often disappointed or embittered about people’s indifference and cruelty. When that happens, he is left with just one option: to be a writer, and travel in his imagination. ‘There is a world in a world in a world, and existence is the victory of fantasy over reality. There is only one way out. All you have to do is ignore reality, not see the spectators, close the fourth wall.’