Het meer der herinnering
An ode to memory, that glorious but untrustworthy lake
‘One serious drawback is the impossibility of becoming somebody else.’ That quotation is the most succinct summary of the theme Rudy Kousbroek broaches in Het meer der herinnering. It is the basic melody, the basso continuo that links his contributions, namely melancholy wrapped in humour and analytical thought. The twenty-four essays in this book deal mainly with variations on the theme that there are limitations to human existence which can only be crossed in the imagination.
The realm of the imagination, this human reservoir of melancholy and desire, is the subject of this book. Accordingly, it deals with the impossibility of becoming what you once were: a happy child, for instance, or an inhabitant of Paris when the streets were still uncrowded and calm, and the impossibility of being who you would like to be: the lover of Madame de Kubly, for instance.
For Kousbroek the most universal themes - nostalgia, cruelty, unrequited love, the longing for death, the mystery and meaning of tears, the pathology of fortune and misfortune - are inseparably bound up with the most personal approach, which is not the same as saying that the individual is a floating soul. In the Netherlands, Kousbroek is, in fact, known as a rationalist, an enemy of obscurantism. Hence he treats the most romantic and emotionally charged subjects in his book as particular mixtures of personal musings and detached enquiry. ‘Art may be considered as experience rendered suitable for communication, a transformation needed to render hard facts accessible to the emotions, much as a microscopic preparation must be dyed before it can be interpreted.’
How do we find our way to a house that no longer exists? Kousbroek knows the answer from experience: his parents’ house on the east coast of Sumatra where he spent his first twelve years is as alive in Dutch literature as it has been razed to the ground in reality. For Kousbroek, Indonesia is paradise lost in all possible senses: lost to the Netherlands as an old, decried but no less beloved colonial culture; lost to himself, as the paradise of his childhood, and also lost in a more general or figurative sense, as a demonstration of the experiential fact that not only human beings are mortal, but worlds too. Kousbroek has written another book as well about this particular lost world, one that may be considered a classic of Dutch literature: Het Oostindisch kampsyndroom (The Dutch East Indies Camp Syndrome).
Such worlds and above all memories of them carry their own complications and Kousbroek would not be Kousbroek if he did not lay that fact on the dissecting table. ‘It is as if the brain believed that its task was to mould experience into works of art, the better to preserve what is valuable in all we have seen, felt and thought.’ Het meer der herinnering is an ode to memory, that glorious but untrustworthy lake.