About the book
In the Netherlands this book has cult status, but it’s not one you usually discuss. When asked about their favourite book many Dutch may even not mention Kees de jongen because it’s so obvious, like the water you drink and the air you breathe. And also because it’s a secret treasure, that is left out of the equation (and that some are loath to share with foreigners). When we talk about books, we mean all the other books. But just say ‘eeuwig mooi haar’ (‘eternally beautiful hair’), and everybody will know you’re in the league. Of course you are.
One remarkable feature of the story is the way the author makes the narrative slide back and forth, smoothly and unobtrusively, between actual events and Kees’ fantasies about them, with events not always conforming to the way Kees had imagined them to evolve. Even though most of these fantasies are puerile, this is done so convincingly that the reader also gets carried away. Thijssen takes his protagonist 100% seriously, and this is one source of the delicious and subtle irony that pervades the novel throughout: the humour-that-gets-under-your-skin, the humour-by-stealth, the humour delivered with the most innocent of faces, that keeps tickling long after the fact. Haven’t we all had these fantasies? (And don’t we still have them, in weak moments?)
But the story also tugs at your heartstrings. With its terse style, its well dosed sentiment and its true to life dialogues (well, everything in the novel is utterly convincing and true to life; Nabokov would hate it), had it been written by Chekhov, it would have been one of his major works. No less an authority than the current doyen of Dutch literature, Remco Campert, has deemed this novel the best ever written (and he wasn’t thinking of Dutch literature only).
So what is the novel about?
In a nutshell Kees de jongen is the story of a twelve year old lower middle class boy in late 19th century Amsterdam.
Kees (short for Cornelius, and pronounced more or less as ‘case’) goes to school, looks after his younger brother and sister, runs errands for the shoe store of his parents (who have trouble in making ends meet), he acquires a beautiful coveted Persian stamp for his collection, and he agonizes over a looming coat, to be made for him from granny’s worn material, that will, he fears, make him look cheap and foolish. For this is his main concern: how others will see him. He likes to show off with his rudimentary knowledge of French, or even the mere fact that he has French as a subject, but when, near Dam Square, he is actually addressed in French by a stranger he is slow to react, and one of the despised street tramps walks off with the man. This sends Kees into soaring fantasies about how he will take the initiative to guide French tourists about town, engage in conversation with them and leave them deeply impressed with Amsterdam boys, who were so courteous and who ‘spoke all languages’ (See end of chapter IV). His one attempt at giving substance to this idea, however, rather embarrassingly falls flat (chapter V).
Kees is still at an age (but only just!) when a boy would rather drop dead than be seen with a girl, or even be suspected of fancying one. And so he makes dismissive remarks about the new arrivée, Rosa Overbeek (who has been at a posh institute ‘where they learn about pronouns and worse things’) when, in fact, he is rather awed by her. There are pinprick confrontations throughout the novel, small exchanges of asperities, until, at the very end, Kees daringly if bashfully takes to waiting for her out in the street, on the route she takes home after school. The reader holds his breath, but she turns out to be unexpectedly responsive, leading to a beautiful and memorable finale.
In the words of literary critic Pieter Steinz: ‘When at the age of twelve he leaves school to begin earning money for his mother as a junior clerk at a coffee-and-tea company, it is only the hearts of stone that he hasn’t stolen.’
So superficially, taking a bird’s eye’s view, the story is all about trivial little things: about Kees’ rather drab daily life and the daydreams that enable him to escape from it. It’s about his little concerns, fantasies, worries and preoccupations. But the author, in a truly masterful way that must be almost without parallel in world literature, manages to zoom in, to project us, the reader, into his protagonist. Kees is convinced he is special, as we were all born to think, and this, paradoxically, is precisely what makes him so recognizable and gives the novel its universal appeal. Kees is the boy that every man once was (even when they don’t want to admit it). You can start reading almost anywhere in the book, and before you have read three pages you have yourself become Kees. And then nothing is trivial any more. Mole hills have become mountains around and ahead of you, and you will want to know how you are going to cope with them. You will want to read on and on…
The novel has all the charm and couleur locale of Amsterdam at the turn of the (19th) century, when winters were severe, lamps burned on paraffin and carriages and street cars were horse drawn, but for sheer economy and pace of the narrative it could have been written yesterday.