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.