J. Bernlef

A Boy’s War

Early adolescence at a time of war

A Boy’s War has a special place in Bernlef’s substantial work. Previously published as Achterhoedegevecht (‘Rearguard Action’, 1989) Bernlef has since pared this coming of age drama down to its essence. Twelve-year-old Michiel is sent away from Amsterdam by his parents in the last year of the war, to the Tulp family in the village of Driewoude, to fatten up. There in the country the war manifests itself completely differently.

‘At home the war had been so much easier. It was visible behind barbed wire, it wore a uniform, it was discernible from everyday life. Here it often surrounded him with incomprehensible signs.’

Bernlef shows the world purely and solely through a boy’s eyes at the start of adolescence; a fragile perspective that is charged more than ever in wartime. The change from city to country, the forced intimacy with strangers, and living under wartime occupation make a survivor of Michiel. The physical sensations of early adolescence are marvellously evoked by the author: ‘Aunt Merel’s’ fleshy arms, his ‘adoptive sister’ Alie’s hairy genitals, his own chafing ankles, not used to clogs.

Michiel also has his hands full trying to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’. The village doctor shouldn’t be greeted, because he fraternizes with the enemy, the neighbour is a member of the nsb and a rake, and must be spied on; in order to get into his classmates’ good books, he must report things he doesn’t understand himself. Before falling asleep at night he comforts himself with a book from home: Mother Reads and identifies with Hagar and Ishmael, who, like himself, were betrayed by their loved ones and sent into the wilderness.

By the time Michiel can go back to Amsterdam, he has discovered that not everything is what it seems. The girl with the gorgeous hair is a Kraut whore. He has learned that principles come at a price and that honesty is relative. At the same time, all that he has experienced happened in such a closed world and period that he feels nothing has happened at all. This paradox, of ‘all’ and ‘nothing’, is beautifully brought to life in this novella.

Bernlef may well have come the closest to the reality of most Dutch people in May 1945.

Haarlems Dagblad

Bernlef is a real pro who grabs the reader’s attention with each novel.

De Telegraaf

A Boy’s War is a sympathetic story… Plainly told, with much empathy in the detailing of the daily life of a twelve-year-old.

AD Magazine

He stopped when he saw the huge soldier in front of him. He looked up at the dark, dull butt of his rifle, the cracked leather boots on his spread legs, the helmet covering his neck. A few metres in front of him in the half darkness of the hall Aunt Merel, Jan and Uncle Johan stood next to one another with their hands in the air. He couldn’t hear it, but his aunt was crying, he could clearly see two tremulous canals running from her eyes into the folds of her neck, eventually disappearing into the dark cleft between her breasts. His uncle’s arms were only halfway up, so his hands were in line with his ears. He looked in Michiel’s direction, but it was as if he didn’t see him. His thin hair was dishevelled. Behind him the staircase rose into darkness. Jan had his hands folded behind his neck. His eyes were almost shut, and he seemed to be concentrating intently on a mouldy brown patch on the ceiling. Nobody made a sound.

J. Bernlef

Bernlef (1937-2012), who debuted in 1960, has produced an extensive body of work including poems, short stories, novels and essays. He translated the Scandinavian poets Lars Gustafson and Tomas Tranströmer into Dutch and was editor of the literary periodicals Barbarber and Raster. The best known…

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Een jongensoorlog (2005). Fiction, 132 pages.

Sample translation

English (PDF document)



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The Netherlands
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