Henk van Woerden


Migration, morality and the Mediterranean

Entirely unexpectedly, Ultramarijn, the novel that seemed to indicate a new direction in Henk van Woerden’s writing, became his swan song. A month after its publication the author died of a heart attack. With Henk van Woerden’s passing, the Netherlands lost a cosmopolitan writer of international stature.

With his first novel Moenie kyk nie (1993), van Woerden found his own unique voice: poetic, associative, refined, and strongly evocative. The writer made no secret of the fact that this novel, set in South Africa, about an emigrant family in the process of breaking up, treated his own history. The theme of exile and disintegration was made for him. In an interview, Van Woerden explained that he had three linguistic behavior maps in mind: the prosaic Dutch of his family, the poetic Afrikaans of his surroundings, and the formal English of his classmates at the international high school.

The theme of the eternal outsider recurred in his next two novels, again set in South Africa. In Tikoes (1996), the narrator, after years of absence, travels back to South Africa in the company of his new girlfriend Tikoes. She too appears to be weighed down by her past, and the question is to what extent either of these wandering souls can really feel at home anywhere. In Een mond vol glas (1998), Van Woerden reconstructs the life of Demetrios Tsafendas, the man who, in 1966, stabbed to death the South African prime minister Verwoerd, founder of the apartheid policy. Via Tsafendas, Van Woerden sketches the shadowy emigrant’s existence of a ‘colored’ and in addition gives his personal impressions of the South Africa of then and now.

Van Woerden felt an affinity with the Turks and Moroccans living in the Netherlands. He recognized their ‘feeling of nostalgia’. ‘If there is anything that I wanted to treat in my four books, it’s the feeling of loss,’ he said at the time his big novel about loss was still to be published. In Ultramarijn he took inspiration from Mediterranean musicians, writers, painters and poets. The land where most of this book takes place is a cross between Turkey and Greece. Joakim, Aysel, and their daughter Özlem are migrants, uprooted drifters. In this Özlem compares herself to a seagull: ‘That bird doesn’t know anything about where he came from either.’

In addition to the political history of their country of origin, the fate of these characters is also determined by what is an impossible love between a brother and his half-sister, and by the fruit of that love. When their father suspects that daughter Aysel is pregnant, he takes her with him to Germany where she builds a new life. Joakim remains behind, and for the rest of his days he will search for Aysel’s ghost. In the end he will find it in Özlem, without knowing that she is not only Aysel’s daughter but his own as well.

Ultramarijn tells an exceptionally beautiful, bold and fatal story in which people experience their lives as ‘cut in half.’ His evocative description of the inner lives of migrants indicates that Van Woerden was finally able to level the dividing walls between the compartments in his mind.

With Ultramarijn Van Woerden has written a European novel as envisioned by Kundera: grand, melancholy yet vital, many-voiced and socially involved.

De Standaard

There are few writers who describe the uprootedness, alienation, and inner disruption of those who leave their own country as convincingly.

de Volkskrant

An excellent book, accurate and pulling no punches … A novel that demands to be reread and will offer food for thought and divulge secrets for years to come.

Financieel Dagblad

Searching for the roots of morals and passions. This writer touches upon the unknowable.


Aysel thought that she could read the country – any country – like a newspaper. But this country, this city, was impossible to read. What had happened to her back home was a closed chapter. But the shock of Fragfurti would probably never leave her. That first winter she spent hours along the railway tracks behind Pegasus Street. Just to be outside, no matter how cold she was. To have the feeling that there was sandy ground here too, a grassy patch on the side of the road, a ditch that might acquire significance. So many things had become insubstantial, empty. The neighbourhood was crisscrossed by humming power. lines strung between tall poles. Time and again, with her back up against one of them, she crouched down in the sand. During her pregnancy, she became accustomed to that position: crouching with her hands around her belly. The railway embankment hid the brown-coal power station and the brickworks from view. The railway signal was powered by a gas canister, which had to be replaced every so often by a man in an orange uniform. But whenever she half-closed her eyes and squinted at the low-hanging sun, she felt as if she were somewhere else: the corner of a southern wharf, the shadow of the public garden and the land behind Kargöz Street.


Henk van Woerden

Henk van Woerden (Leiden, 6 December 1947 – Ann Arbor, 16 November 2005) grew up in Leiden and moved to Cape Town, South Africa, at the age of ten. He studied at the School of Fine Arts in Cape Town, before returning to Europe in May 1968. From 1987 onwards he taught at the Academy of Art in…

lees meer


Ultramarijn (2005). Fiction, 300 pages.

Sample translation

English (PDF document)



Van Eeghenstraat 93
NL - 1071 EX Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 20 421 38 30
Fax: +31 20 421 37 76


lees meer

Literary agent

The Susijn Agency

820 Harrow Road, Kensal Green
NW10 5JU London
Tel: +44 20 8968 7435
[email protected]

lees meer