Circus Animals

6 FEBRUARY 2019 | KAREN KAO

Dieuwke van Turenhout is crazy about short stories. She writes them. She reads them. She’ll even record a podcast about short stories for her website Not Just Hemingway. It’s how we met last summer and why I got an invitation to the launch of Olifanten warm houden, her debut short story collection.

Van Turenhout calls herself a slow writer. She writes by hand in a leather-bound notebook. Sometimes, she’ll come up with a title or an opening sentence but not the story that matches. Or, she gets lucky and finds a photograph: a story is born. Whatever she’s written by hand, Van Turenhout will later input as is into the computer. Let it rest. Edit. Let it rest. Edit some more.

Maybe it’s this patience, this deep dive in slow motion that gives Van Turenhout her ability to inhabit the consciousness of others. Not just people like her but those whose lives she could only enter with the power of her imagination. That sounds more obvious than it is. Most of us have only one story to tell. Van Turenhout travels with an entire circus.

The Fat Man

Take, for example, her short story “Slagroom” (whipped cream). Its hero is a morbidly obese young man named Victor Llawer. He longs desperately for companionship, knowing all the while how impossible that is.

The problem with fat people is that everyone thinks they can handle anything, Victor thought. That those extra layers of fat cushion the blows. That they have extra thick ear drums or are so stupid that the message – any message – needs to be spelled out. That no one that size has a right to privacy.

Dieuwke van Turenhout, “Slagroom”. Translation Karen Kao

Perhaps you’re not yet impressed. You’re thinking: any empathetic person could imagine such feelings. Fine. Try this scene where, to escape the humiliation of an impending blind date, Victor heads for the loo.

He pissed, as usual, into the sink: the luxury of a handicapped toilet! A faucet at hip height so he wouldn’t have to bend down and could take care of business by touch alone with the cold porcelain pressed against his balls.

Idem

Didn’t see that one coming, did you?

Exotic Birds

Many of the stories in Olifanten warm houden are about the Other. Most have an unsettling sort of rhythm that runs along the bass line of the narrative. Something is wrong, even when the day is at its most beautiful. Birdsong quivers into the morning in the story “Onye mere nwa nebe awka”. The words refer to a Nigerian lullaby though the story is anything but sweet. Van Turenhout won an honorable mention for it from Glimmer Train. High praise indeed.

Some stories are clearly derived from Van Turenhout’s experience as an expat and a mother of young children. But that’s not the only trick she has in her bag. From present-day to the distant past and even a venture into a dystopian future, Van Turenhout has a story for every occasion.

In less than fourteen years, Marie Bellepaire had grown into a beauty, even though she was no more than a meter and a half tall. Marie could transform a grey Antwerp day into a colorful drawing of pure, flowing tints lit by the golden glow of an orange sun. Even when she lugged in the wash. Even with dirt under her fingernails. When she boxed the ears of her little brother Karel, no one heard a hard slap but the beating wings of an exotic bird.

Dieuwke van Turenhout, “Vuur”. Translation Karen Kao

Elephants

The title story, “Olifanten warm houden” translates as keeping elephants warm. It’s a phrase that recurs throughout this story. The narrator is a man, neither young nor old. We understand, from the very first paragraph, how very alone he is.

Now autumn has shown its face, I bike to the shops every day. I’ve stopped keeping my bike at the back of the bike shed; it’s at the front of the garage now. I avoid the asphalt road and when I cross the ring road it’s as though I’m seeing my old self through the windscreens of the waiting cars. I dress for the autumn chill and each time I put on my coat I think about you, and about elephants. (You can’t really call it chilly, objectively speaking. The weatherman, the one you despise, with the bent back and the stupidly hip suits, keeps smiling and calling it wonderful weather, but what does he know? I shiver and even wear your scarf indoors sometimes.).

Dieuwke van Turenhout, “Keeping Elephants Warm,” Asymptote Journal, 14 Aug 2018. Translation Michele Hutchison

I wish there were more of Van Turenhout’s stories available, whether in English or in Dutch. I’m ready for more.