Preface to the English language translation.
What is Brabant? What is a Brabanter and how is he/she different from other people? Chapters XI-XIII deal with these questions, but more importantly perhaps this novel is throughout infused with that Brabanter feeling.
For the uninitiated here a brief discourse of history. The Netherlands as it is presently, is only part of a greater Netherlands, called “The Low Countries” (les Pays Bas in French and Los Países Bajos in Spanish). It comprised the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and the North-West corner of France called “Picardy”. By contrast, “Holland” refers only to the Provinces of North- and South-Holland and perhaps part of Zeeland. For a long time the Low Countries were part of the Spanish Empire. In the 16th century North-West Netherlands fought themselves free from the Spaniards and almost simultaneously converted to the Calvinist brand of Protestantism. The dividing line was formed by “the Great Rivers” meaning the delta of the rivers Maas, Waal and Rhine. South of that line lay “Brabant”, still Spanish and still Catholic in the main. After the defeat of Napoleon the greater Netherlands was created by the Conference of Vienna in 1815, with Prince William VI of Orange being appointed to rule over this area as King William I. He was an absolute Monarch and long did his rule not last. The Southern (Catholic) areas revolted, leading to a civil war in 1830 and the official creation of Belgium in 1839. The area known as Brabant ended up split in two over two countries, the Northern part becoming eventually the Province of North Brabant of the new (reduced) State of the Netherlands.
Brabant as a geographical and political entity was first created by Duke Jan of Brabant (1254 – 1294). He brought stability and prosperity. Culture flourished. The capital of Brabant was (and is) Brussels. At the time of Charles Quint (1500-1558) Brussels was the luxurious capital of Europe. The iconic polyptich painting by the Van Eyck brothers “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” was painted there 220 years before Rembrandt painted his “Night Watch”. Renaissance (and indeed civilization) came to Holland only by way of Brabant. The many 15th century churches one still finds in Holland are all in a style called ‘Brabant Gothic’. Who were these Brabant people? In the main they were Frankish groups that had come from Germany and who then (scared away by those mighty rivers), had turned Southwards to eventually create France. They came under control of the Roman Empire. With these legions came also Christian teachers and these Frankish ‘heathens’ converted readily to Christianity (later called Roman Catholicism). North of the great rivers the ethnicity was mainly Saxon and Frisian (= Angel). 1500 years later the (North) Brabanters were caught in a vise that held them imprisoned as virtual slaves for almost three centuries. Their religion remained forbidden. They had almost no civil rights: no voting rights, therefore no representation, no passports even, no access to good schools or to certain jobs such as in the civil service and to many professions (judges, professors). Officially this discrimination ended in 1853 when the Netherlands arrived at a Concord with the Vatican: an agreement that allowed for freedom of religion. Bishops, priests and nuns were again allowed in, churches were built. Unfortunately, more than a century later the emancipation of the Catholics in the Netherlands still was not complete. This novel, while it follows the career of a catholic Brabanter in the 20th century, recounts the discrimination he still had to endure. He lived the discrimination that was an everyday part of his life. Not only because of these protestant Hollanders but also because his own parents, his own people, his own bishops told him to always keep his head down. He did not and he won, only to lose it all in the end. And yet he won again, by never bending. To quote Henry Miller:
I have no money, no resources, no hope
I am the happiest man alive
Language is the foundation of civilization. This I heard already early in my young life and I have lived constantly according to that mantra. It began with reading anything and everything I could get my hands on and at the time that meant a maximum of three books a week from the Public Library. Soon I started also writing; about from the fourth year of the primary school onwards. I never looked back. Initially just writing exercises at school, later scientific papers about sometimes extremely esoteric subjects. At the same time also poetry, short stories and serious essays. Of these, the essays are dearest to my heart, in spite of the fact that they generated little public interest. Why this preference? Because in these essays the smallness and the greatness of human activities may be shown in symbiotic combination. “You are really a story teller”, someone told me recently. Maybe so, I thought, but why was it then so difficult to write a novel? Only now my debut as a novelist and indeed it was a difficult delivery. No 800 or 1400 words as we see so often nowadays in serious literature. Rather very compact, with many flashbacks and flashforwards as indeed we do in our thinking process. With indeed that symbiosis of the great with the tiny. With at every turn that major red thread of Love. No autobiography but rather a mixture of experiences with pure fiction. A composed story which, I hope, will keep the reader spellbound till the end.
Many assisted me in this joyful endurance test. Many times major changes were made, forcing me to start all over. Curiously, I started off in English, only to be told that first I should complete a Dutch version. Which I did with “Brabantse Tranen” which appeared in September 2017. Now back to my second first language, roughly translating from the Dutch version. To all my friends and readers of the first and later hours my great thanks. And finally, a dedication: to the girl with the golden locks.
The author and translator