Jeroen Brouwers

Sunken Red

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.

In Sunken Red, Brouwers’ exploration of the experience of loss through estrangement and death lingers with the reader.

Publishers Weekly

This haunting novel is a cathartic experience.

New York Sunday Times

One of the most important novels in contemporary literature.

Die Zeit

For weeks the land has been shrouded in mist, mist which in places rolls itself into castles or cathedrals; an almost imperceptible moistness descends. Nothing moves, only the mist – we are in a period of grey mourning, we are halfway through the winter, end of January, beginning of February 1981.
During this time my mother died suddenly.
She might well have lived another ten years, she might have died ten years earlier.
They found her in the early morning of Tuesday, January 27, dead on the floor of her apartment in the old people’s home where she had been living for some time. I would not know how to find the place, nor do I know how she lived. I cannot remember when it was I last saw her.
She must have fallen from “the couch.” She was lying on “the carpet” in front of this couch, but I do not know the interior of her room. Clearly, she had a couch. And a carpet.
When they found her she was already “cold” and “blue”; it is probable that she died on the evening of January 26. From the fact that the television set in her apartment was switched off, it was though that her death must have occurred either before the start of the evening programs or after they had finished.
The light had been seen burning all night in her room, but no special attention had been paid to that.


Jeroen Brouwers

Jeroen Brouwers (1940-2022) grew up in Indonesia, worked as an editor at Manteau publishers in Brussels for twelve years and subsequently settled in the Netherlands.

His debut, the story collection Het mes op de keel (The Knife to the Throat, 1964), and the novel Joris Ockeloen en het wachten

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