Dirty Hands

Never before has the dry humour and occasional tragedy of office life been described as thoroughly as in this cycle of novels. The appearance of the first two parts, 'Meneer Beerta' (Mr Beerta) and 'Vuile handen' (Dirty Hands) was enough to guarantee the cycle’s status as a classic of Dutch literature. The books mercilessly describe the frivolity, the petty irritations and teasing, the conniving and crawling, the hierarchy, the unnatural suppression of emotion, and the alienation that insidiously strengthens its hold on people over the years in which they are obliged to spend their days together in a closed room.

Original title
Vuile handen (Het Bureau 2)
J.J. Voskuil

Gradually the Bureau itself emerges as the real main character: an institute which draws in its staff every morning with a magnetic power, encloses them, wrings them dry, then spits them back out at the end of the working day.

J.J. Voskuil has produced a sublime parody of academic specialisation. Maarten Koning, the fictional alter ego who first appeared in Voskuil’s previous book Bij nader inzien, joins the Bureau for Dialectology, Folklore and Onomastics in 1957, and is charged with systematic research into the most obscure of folk traditions: the belief in elves, the uses of scythes and harrows, rye bread and cradles. Nobody knows what purpose the research is meant to serve, but everyone does as they’re asked. Voskuil’s wry method of recording a scene in the space of a few pages and then cutting to another gradually builds up to create a complete picture of a surrealistic agency which would do Kafka proud.

'Het bureau' is beyond a doubt the absolute literary sensation of the last thirty years.

Theodor Holman, Het Parool

Part One, Meneer Beerta, is a brilliant portrait of the institute’s director. This ironic and elusive figure is the personification of Maarten Koning’s view of academic research: a version of occupational therapy which provides status and income for its practitioners, who therefore maintain a prudent silence when outsiders and inferiors question its meaningfulness. In Vuile handen, set between 1965 and 1973, the period of Vietnam and student unrest, Maarten has become head of the Popular Culture Department and is gradually trying to surround himself with a circle of kindred spirits. He has grown up and now identifies with his role. From this new position he watches his student ideals being slowly whittled away. Het bureau is a profoundly comical, detailed and moving depiction of that world of bosses and wage slaves which ultimately imprisons everyone.

What makes the novel so special is the way it magnifies human failing. The Bureau is the universe in a pocket edition, an allegory for society. The fact that there is still plenty to laugh at, mainly because of the sublime style and the often comic dialogue, makes human fate bearable.

Jury’s Report Libris Literature Prize 1997

Despite the honest, diary-like, unadorned style which clearly betrays the spirit of Alberts, Elsschot and Nescio - and could one ask for better writers as guardian angels? - the novel ultimately reveals an exceedingly sophisticated construction.

H. Brandt Corstius, NRC Handelsblad
J.J. Voskuil
J.J. Voskuil (1926-2008) stands alone in Dutch literature. In 1963 he published 'Bij nader inzien' (On Second Thoughts), a twelve-hundred-page novel which describes with photographic precision the lives of a group of students in Amsterdam between 1946 and 1953.
Share page