Arthur Japin

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.’

The immediate, magical influence of art has rarely been so great.

Vrij Nederland

Japin’s flawless style and sharp observations make his words totally convincing.


We came out of the theatre after the matinee and were waiting on the corner of 52nd and Broadway until we could cross. Next to the traffic light on the other side of the street stood a respectable-looking family: father, mother, and two children, a little girl and a boy about my age. They were joined by an old woman dressed in black with a small purse and an umbrella on her arm. The woman kept her eyes on the traffic light, but after a while she turned to the father and asked him something. Her question obviously annoyed him, because he shook his head brusquely. This didn’t seem to bother her, and she went back to watching the traffic.
When the cars braked and don’t walk was about to change to walk, the old woman suddenly leaned down to the boy and whispered something in his ear. He stared at her, looked up at his father in surprise, then grinned, a bit sheepishly, but said nothing. Then she spoke to the little girl, who didnt dare look at the stranger and, just to be sure, grabbed hold of her father’s hand.
At that moment the light changed and we could cross, but the family across the street showed no sign of moving. The parents stood there as if paralyzed. All of a sudden the mother flew at the old woman. ‘Don’t say that to my children!’ she screamed. She grabbed the woman by her fur collar and shook her back and forth. ‘Not to my children, not to my children, don’t you say that!’
The old woman just laughed, and the mother began hitting her in the face as hard as she could, first with the flat of her hand, then with both fists, until her husband stopped her. By this time we had reached the other side. The old woman had blood on her face and was swaying slightly. Her jacket was torn and underneath it you could see the thick fabric of a flesh-colored corset.
‘My children!’ the young woman kept screaming. ‘She cursed my children!

Arthur Japin

Arthur Japin (b. 1956) has written for the stage as well as for radio, film and television. His breakthrough came in 1997 with the novel De zwarte met het witte hart (The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi), which sold over 150,000 copies and was awarded several prizes. Een schitterend gebrek (In Lucia’s…

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De vierde wand (1998). Fiction, 204 pages.
Copies sold: 50,000


De Arbeiderspers

Weteringschans 259
NL - 1017 XJ Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 20 760 72 10

[email protected]

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