Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
In 1993 an ethnic-nationalistic war raged in the middle of Europe. Images we had relegated to the gruesome history of our continent reached us from our vacationland, Yugoslavia. We talked about the future union of Europe, but what we observed was separatism and murder. The news was always bad.
But the pictures of snipers and the boulevard of the dead in Sarajevo remained just news: a passing part of our daily lives that yielded 15 minutes of bewilderment, half an hour of conversation filler, and an awful feeling of powerlessness. I was by no means the only writer who asked herself how she could remain aloof from these events. Like other Dutch writers I recognized that the major events of the world didn’t seem to concern me, but I didn’t want the narratives of national literature to shun social and political realities. That you are as powerless as everyone else is not an argument that a novelist accepts. My fingers itched to get to work.
It was during this time that I met a Sinto, a Dutchman with very dark eyes and hair you could call raven-black, a man belonging to a social category known as “gypsy.” From this meeting would come my book, Duke of Egypt. It would take me the next three years to write.
When you go beyond autobiography in writing, when you make the facts of other lives your own, you must do more than study people, meet them, and talk with them. You have to let this new knowledge sink into your own life, which is much harder. The fusion of inner and outer worlds that takes place in the process of writing can expand your story to the most distant place. Writing is also listening, to the voices of reality and those you already know from literature; at a certain moment a connection is formed and a unique voice is created which will be the voice of the novel.
Like most of us, I knew next to nothing about gypsies when I began my book. I started to read. The cultures of the Sinti and the Roma are related, just like their language, which originates from one of the oldest languages, Sanskrit. The Sinto I had met introduced me to a number of his relatives. With a social worker—a steeled activist whom I tracked down through old newspaper articles—I visited trailer camps in Bijlmer, in Groningen, Veldhoven, Amsterdam-West, Oldenzaal, Stijn, Best, and the projects in Capelle on the Ijssel river, Nieuwegein, and other neighborhoods. The Dutch Sinti and Roma I came to know—including some descended from Yugoslavian Roma families—trusted me because I came with trusted people. They told me their stories and stories of their fathers, their mothers, their brothers, nephews, uncles, grandfathers, and great aunts.
“Gypsies” don’t see themselves as a single group; in fact they usually avoid the term. They nonetheless agree that they are different than other citizens, whom they call “gadje.” Founded on nothing other than the observation that gypsies seem to come and go and often live in trailer homes, gadje associate them with the idea of freedom. Of those I’ve met many do indeed prefer trailer homes and use the word “freedom” to describe their way of life. But their continuing unrest reflects less a romantic love of freedom than a history of more than five hundred years of persecution in Europe. Dutch Gypsies, I came to understand, were uprooted by the government in the eighteenth century, allowed gradually to return in the nineteenth century, only to be harassed and criminalized by the government in the twentieth century.
By the government. Gadje and gypsies, as individuals, have often been very useful to each other in the harvest, the horse trade; gypsies provided all sorts of other ambulatory services from knife sharpening to wedding music. Neither were lower-level officials and mayors of towns always difficult. They often granted work and living permits. What shocked and fascinated me while researchingDuke of Egypt was how the Dutch national government—the military police, the departments of Justice and the Interior—was the antagonist in the conflict. That is the background of the novel. And out of that background a Roma-gypsy named Joseph stepped forward, accompanied by Lucie, a woman from a town in Twente.
During all three of the years that I worked on Duke of Egypt, I remained in contact with gypsies living in The Netherlands. I knew where someone like Joseph came from, I knew what he looked like, his clothes, his striking manner of talking—directly, without any psychologizing—and I also knew all that from who his parents and other relatives could have been. As for the figure of Lucie, things were somewhat simpler because I come from farmers myself, and as an adult I lived off the land for years, in Drente, surrounded by “horse people.”
Still, for all the research the characters of Duke of Egypt were not created anywhere other than at my desk. Joseph is quick, dark, a man of action even in his storytelling voice. What he wants to reveal about himself comes out in the form of stories. Lucie is pale, red-haired. What I like about her is that the slowness of her thoughts comes very close to contemplation. Both are totally lacking in psychological insight. I like how their love expresses itself laconically and naturally in the activities of daily life and in the telling of, and listening to, stories. The first declaration of love between Joseph and Lucie takes place in a cleaning stall as the two devote themselves completely to the shearing of a couple of large horses; their conversation is minimal.
The theme of storytelling is so dominant in Duke of Egypt that I adapted the form of the entire book to its rules. Chronology, for example, is less important than association. When the figure of Joseph is confused with his long dead father, Joseph simply vanishes and his father sits down calmly at the table and reports what happened to him during the war. The threshold of the dead is repeatedly crossed in this book.
From the beginning I saw in Joseph the color and the sound of storytelling voices. They connect him to our national past: the roundup of all Dutch gypsies on the 16th of May, 1944; the resistance in Twente in which Joseph’s father participated; and the government-sponsored terrorism during the eighteenth century, when the border provinces Gelderland and Overijssel worked a bit too eagerly with the Germans to drive out the gypsies (called Heathens at the time), an endeavor so successful that it eradicated gypsies in our region until the end of the nineteenth century. Joseph’s ancestor Maria Jansz was hanged in the Zutphen town square on a sunny May morning in 1726. That she was a beautiful, good-humored wife with an eight-year-old daughter who was forced to witness the execution is something that concerns Joseph. That’s how I wanted it.
With this background of oppression and injustice, is Duke of Egyptwhat you would call a political book? It wasn’t intended to be, although it could have become that way during the three years I learned of the reality of camps where gypsies lived, the social security payments, the payments for persecuted-victims lawsuits and the whole paper trail of persecution that determines the daily life of the people who told me stories in a way that I wasn’t used to.
In fiction the narrator is not overtly political, by definition: the narrator is a part of the story and therefore fictional, while politics belongs in the real life of the writer, who strictly speaking has nothing to do with the story.
The subject of my book is the foreigner—someone not so different from the asylum seeker of today, inhabitants of my own country who, simply because of their appearance and their way of life, are kept at such a distance that we scarcely notice them. Everyone in my country knows about the history of anti-Semitism, but the suffering of the Sinti and the Roma was completely overlooked until a few years ago. The roundup of May 1944 was indeed a Nazi measure but was carried out without much protest by the Dutch police. Dutch people have the ability to become morally outraged very quickly, but aside from a small circle of historians no one has acknowledged that the roundup was completely in line with government policy to keep gypsies out of society. Not just literally, by way of keeping their camps far from residential areas, but by placing them under constant criminal suspicion.
And don’t think that this, the criminal suspicion, is in the distant past. In 1968, when half of Europe was busy protesting authority, a law was passed in The Netherlands that forced gypsies to gather once again in large camps, made it impossible for them to travel, and therefore brought an end to their ambulant trades. Aside from some protests it inspired outside Parliament, the law escaped notice. Artists and intellectuals, with all their anti-bourgeois agitation, did not support the gypsies, simply because they hadn’t thought of it.
Sometimes writing a novel requires lots of historical, anthropological, and sociological reading. But these works are in essence secondary: they are not wellsprings, and bibliographies don’t belong in novels. Stories lead to stories, and the themes of loyalty, love, betrayal, and courage can’t be captured in research notes. “The world is destined to wind up in books,” Mallarmé has said,and that book is, with due respect, not a learned tome and not a newspaper, but a novel, or an epic poem. We know about Napoleon’s war against Russia because of Tolstoy. The war against Troy thanks to Homer.
The language of the Sinti and the Roma, Romany, has been a foreign language to us. And, at least according to the Sinti I have met, it should stay that way until it becomes apparent that we gadje can be trusted. But they have told me stories in Dutch, the language we have in common. Storytelling exists through the grace of listening, and through that listening the listener’s own submerged stories are heard as well.
To understand another is a very nice thing. A nicer, more beautiful thing is: to make room in your own story for the story of another. Perhaps this, the unique power of fiction, is the answer to the helplessness we felt as writers facing the war that raged in Bosnia.
Translated from the Dutch by Duncan Dobbelmann
Excerpt from Duke of Egypt
It was a wet summer, the summer that Joseph and Lucie met. Rain and more rain makes a camp like that look anything but thriving. But those endless muddy routes lead past plowed fields and orchards, under warm suns, under cool moons, they point where you can stretch your arms out and look into a pair of kindred eyes. How’s your father? How’s your mother? And those dreadful aunts and uncles? The annual fair, the scrapyard, over the centuries you have become adept at a very quick presentation of your person.
Unfortunately your greatest achievements lie outside world culture. There is the square where the audience loves to listen to a pair of demonic musicians. You stand under a blossoming chestnut tree with a Stradivarius. You are one of the exalted. With a cool head and ironic fingers you play variations on the theme of melancholy, while your eyes flirt. There are people who remember their earlier softness, their true selves, and they can almost feel the tears coming. So be it. Let them enjoy their fit of melancholy, you must be on your way. Fairs. Lions’ cages. There’s not a circus where the lion tamer isn’t one of you. An expert in the dialectics of logic and rapture persuades not only people.
But on that patch of green next to Smeenk’s factory, little could be achieved with persuasiveness or anything else. The policemen pulled out a document: According to official reports we have received, you have stationed six caravans on this site.
Translated by Paul Vincent
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.