The Netherlands in the Show-Window

Next up in the Danish newspaper Politiken’s “Europa XL” series of cultural portraits of EU member-states: my favorite! It’s “Holland,” as they term it on the Politiken site, with representative Dutch cultural objects and phenomena (photo, person, event, etc.) chosen by the renowned novelist and travel-book author Cees Nooteboom.

  • Painting: “Girl with the Red Hat,” by Jan Vermeer. Nooteboom was never going to have any problem finding a good, representative painting for the Netherlands, of course; in fact, I think he shows his sophistication by choosing a Vermeer – any Vermeer – where most outsiders would probably have expected to have him go for Rembrandt. And he takes the occasion to plug a character from one of his novels, who also liked Vermeer in particular because he depicted Dutch women as they (supposedly) truly are: “transparent and at the same time solid.”
  • Photograph: Occupation and Flooding. Nooteboom starts discussing the disastrous flood in the Netherlands of the night of 31 January/1 February, 1953, and indeed that was a major trauma that still affects the Dutch consciousness (and, more concretely, which set in motion the extensive water-engineering – “Delta works” – conducted since, especially in that area of Zeeland affected by that flood). And the photograph shows a man trying to drive a team of horses and a loaded-down carriage through chest-high water. But the photograph is not of the 1953 flood – it’s of the 1942 flood, when the occupying Germans deliberately flooded the island of Walcheren down in Zeeland. To the ordeal of occupation, then, was added the age-old specter of flooding, inflicted again on the Dutch as they had to stand aside and could do anything about it.
  • Person: Multatuli. Actually a pseudonym for Edward Douwes Dekker, 19th-century Dutch pamphlet- and novel-writer. He’s most famous for his anti-colonial novel Max Havelaar, possibly the prose classic of Dutch literature. (I’ve even read it myself, but that was while learning advanced Dutch.)
  • Object: Dutch language dictionaries. Specifically, the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, which stands to the Dutch language sort of like the Oxford English Dictionary does to English. Research started in 1880, had reached “S” by 1934, and now is finally finished – only of course to have to start again. There was a major Dutch spelling reform, too, shortly after World War II; that’s why you see words like Nederlandsche only in old, venerable titles like this.
  • Text: An extract from out of De Avonden, or “The Evenings,” by Gerard Reve. The competitor to Max Havelaar at the peak of Dutch prose, but this one is post-World War II and depicts, “with . . . almost Biblical tones,” one Dutch city-dwelling teenager’s dark and oppressive life. I’ve read this one, too; and while it is undoubtedly a classic, I’m not sure what direct relevance it still has to life in the Netherlands, which since the time it depicts has tremendously modernized and opened up (not least with waves of immigrants, most with skin darkened to some degree).
  • Song: The national anthem, the “Wilhelmus.” Now, this one I haven’t “read,” i.e. I do not know – disgraceful, it’s true. I should make good use of the Wilhelmus Site (only in Dutch, I’m afraid), where I can download the text, hear it in a sound file, and learn interesting facts about it – like, did you know that it is the world’s oldest national anthem, having been written sometime between 1568 and 1572? Or that it, nevertheless, was not adopted as the Dutch national anthem until 1932?

Nonetheless, I would like to point out a couple of anomalies that the Wilhelmus contains. For instance, the very first few verses mean “I am Wilhelmus of Nassau [or the famous William the Silent, a key figure in Dutch history as the initial leader of the Dutch revolt against their Spanish rulers of the 16th and 17th centuries] of German blood” (emphasis added). “German” blood? In what is not the German national anthem? The first verse goes on (and I’m not going to burden you with the examination of any of the others) to state “The King of Spain I have always honored.” This while good old Wilhelmus was in the middle of leading a revolt against the same King of Spain! But that was another characteristic of the Dutch Revolt: the rebels always took the stance that they remained, fundamentally, loyal subjects of the Spanish Kingdom, that they were just up in arms against the particular Spanish royal administration of the time that was treating them so badly. In particular, in their view King Philip II must have taken leave of his senses to treat his rich and loyal provinces up in Europe’s Lowlands the way he did; his subjects’ fealty would surely return once he started behaving as he should. In fact, starting with William the Silent and on through history, the main political officer of what became the Dutch Republic was always know as the Stadhouder, or “holder-of-State” – i.e. just a place-holder taking care of public administration until the king returns to his senses and everyone is one big, happy Spanish family again. Of course, that never happened, but the chief Dutch political functionaries continued to be called the Stadhouder, until the French invasion under Napoleon and then the introduction/restoration of the monarchy, which reigns to this day, in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat – another story for another day.

  • Poem: “Memories of Holland,” by Hendrik Marsman. “Thinking of Holland/I see broad rivers/slowly through unending/lowlands flowing” and further for 20 more verses.
  • Food-dish: Pea soup. Spot on! And with little pieces of sausage floating in it! The Netherlands is not by-and-large known for its cuisine, other than perhaps herring and this pea soup, known colloquially as snert. I eat it all the time; as Nooteboom, notes, it’s especially suitable for chilly, grey days (themselves an overwhelming characteristic of Dutch weather); and I have to report that I find the canned variety (brand-name, top-of-the-line) that I buy at the grocery store to be superior to any snert I have yet encountered at any Dutch restaurant.
  • Place: The afsluitdijk, or “closing-off dike,” that walls off what used to be the Zuider Zee (“South Sea”) from the North Sea and so turned it into the present IJsselmeer. (Politiken’s translator renders the Dutch afsluitdijk as “the farthest dike” instead, which is certainly a mistaken translation.) Another very good choice: this 32 kilometer-long dike just wide enough to support a two-lane highway on top, completed in 1932, stands as the crowning achievement to the mastery of engineering over a water-suffused, water-threatened environment that is the hallmark of Dutch technical achievement. It also has enabled the Netherlands to actually create new territory for itself in the area so walled-off from the North Sea, achieved by draining some of that land. In fact, an entire new province was created by the 1970s: Flevoland.
  • Event: The German occupation of 1940. Nooteboom here continues with his theme, started earlier in his discussion of the prototypical Dutch photograph, of the profound influence on Dutch society and culture of the Nazi occupation during most of World War II – it finally woke the Netherlands up of the sleep it had fallen into and had been allowed to continue as it was left alone during World War I. Indeed, Nooteboom cites a controversial quote from Jan Hein Donner (who, as far as I can tell, was otherwise a Dutch international chess champion): “We should fall on our knees and thank Germany because they seized us in the Second World War and so saved us from our eternal provincialism.”

In all, a very good contribution to Politiken’s “Europa XL” series from Cees Nooteboom. The thing to do now, I think, is to immediately move on to Paul Claes’ presentation of Belgium, which seems to focus on the Flemish part of that country, in order to provide an immediate contrast while Holland is still fresh in our minds.

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