In 1996 it was a year since I had left the army. Following a very busy job as a Dutch army officer I now found myself stuck quite alone in a flat. I was thrown back to my very own devices and I began to write my novel, De koning van Tuzla, only that was not the title at the time.
Initially the working title was De laatste vijftiger (The Last of the Fifties’ writers) because I admired the Dutch writers who established themselves during the 1950s and hence are collectively known as ‘De Vijftigers’ or the ‘Fifties’ writers’. I was especially impressed by Remco Campert (born 1929) and Gerrit Kouwenaar (born 1923).
1996 was also the year that my very first poem was published in a literary magazine. The strange thing is that when I left the army I hadn’t published anything, yet I considered myself to be a poet. When thinking back at this time, I consider this an important point: the fact that I referred to myself as a poet. This is linked to how you view the world. It is a matter of not doing things by halves. Yet the novel was published before the poetry collection. It tells the story of a soldier who becomes a writer. Actually it may well have been about a writer who all of a sudden found himself in a war.
De koning van Tuzla was well received when it was published in 1999. I made three appearances on Dutch national TV and I took part in many radio broadcasts. In addition to several other critics, the poet Hans Warren (1921-2001) praised my debut novel.
At the end of 2009, Paul Vincent translated my poetry collection Yugoslav Requiem and now his translation of my debut novel is about to be published. I have been intimately involved in the translation. At every stage I was shown the work in progress and invited to comment. As part of this process I found out how vital it is that the original author – and publisher – are conversant with source and target language. The devil is in the detail and this makes or breaks a translation.
A number of other things also drew my attention. English is more economical with words. In addition English words on average are shorter compared to Dutch words. As a result the English translation of King of Tuzla has shrunk by about ten pages. When viewing the end result it strikes me that the English language gives a writer just a few more opportunities. For example you can state things more precisely.
After ten years I had once again to delve deeply into my debut novel and this lead to a sequel: Engel (available in Dutch, later this year also in English under the title Angel). I suddenly realized I hadn’t yet got quite to the bottom of the main character: Tijmen Klein Gildekamp.
Now if I have made you curious of what I was up to before I became a writer, I recommend you download this video about the Alpha/Kings Company on Tuzla Airbase in Bosnia. If you watch closely you can spot me briefly as the commander of the UN unit (when they go into the office after showing the company’s fanion). Yet even back then I was already a writer.