Powerful novel about a man coming to terms with his youth in a Japanese internment camp
Nowadays it is hard to imagine that the publication of Jeroen Brouwers’s Sunken Red (1981) sparked such controversy in the Dutch press. Another Dutch writer who, like Brouwers, had spent some of his childhood as a prisoner of the Japanese in Indonesia during World War II wrote that Brouwers had stretched the truth: it had not been as bad as Brouwers described in his book.
Brouwers’s defence was that not only had he written a semi-autobiographical novel, with all the freedom that entails, but that he had also done justice to the stories his family had told about those horrors. His truth is in the story, in his representation of events.
In Sunken Red, the guilt-ridden character of Jeroen Brouwers attempts to find some insight into himself. He receives a telephone call to say that his mother, with whom he has lost touch, has passed away. Why does he no longer feel any love for her? At the centre of this harsh, magnificent novel and its battle against despair is the account of how this child of the camps, now an adult, has experienced his youth as a shadow cast over his later life, which has been marked by bouts of depression. A life in which he has believed himself incapable of feeling love for his mother, for women in general.
The literary depiction of this human inadequacy is phenomenal. Brouwers succeeds, with his associative style of writing, in achieving such clarity that present and past seem claustrophobically entwined.
This immediately makes it apparent why the protagonist’s guilt and depersonalisation are so unbearable; although in his early forties now, he still remains the little boy from the camp who saw his mother being tortured by Japanese soldiers. ‘What am I to do with my ‘camp syndrome’, the remorse that I try to drive away by slapping myself in the face whenever, unexpectedly, film scenes from my life in that camp appear before my eyes?’
Rarely in Dutch literature has a war trauma been depicted more penetratingly, more poignantly than in this masterpiece by Jeroen Brouwers, a book that he was compelled to write – so that he could go on living.