My favorite Dutch expression is kermis in de hel. It refers to a weather phenomenon, not so uncommon in Holland around this time of the year, when it rains while the sun shines. In my mind, I see the merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel slick with rain while the dour Dutch soldier on, determined to have a good time if it kills them.
Judith Maassen is a novelist, born and bred in the Netherlands, who must have seen her share of carnivals in hell. With her novel, Niet van hier, Maassen adds a whole other dimension of creepiness to my metaphorical carnival in hell.
Maassen opens with a dead girl in a ditch. She is a dansmarieke, a sort of drum majorette, whose performance is integral to any celebration of the three-day long Lenten street party known here as Carnaval.
Nannie was found in a ditch along the road that led to her house. She wore the same red costume she had donned that afternoon, but the red felt tricorn hat had fallen off her head. The white feathers moved along the edge but nothing in Nannie moved anymore. Other than the torn tights and the bit of blood on her leg, there was nothing wrong with her.Judith Maassen, Niet van hier (Em. Querido’s Uitgeverij 2022), translated by Karen Kao
Nannie’s death sets off a tidal wave in her home village. Z is a small farming community where everyone knows each other and most are family, too. If Nannie’s death is the result of foul play, it’s unthinkable that any of their own might be to blame. All fingers point at the newly arrived Marsman family.
They are clearly not from here. They come from the city and Z is farm country. When the daughter, Rifka Marsman, becomes friendly with one of the local boys, his mother despairs.
Rifka came from the street and not from the land, so she couldn’t possibly know what it was like to work hard, to wake up in the deepest dark of the night to enter the stables and care for the animals, let alone what it was like to pull a dead calf out of his mother, piece by piece. Sometimes, you needed a saw.Judith Maassen, translated by Karen Kao
My least favorite Dutch expression would have fit perfectly in Maassen’s novel. Ons soort mensen is a descriptor my mother-in-law used to draw a circle around those who belonged to her, our kind of people. Everyone outside that circle was not from here.
Rifka’s dream is to belong. She’ll do whatever it takes: drink raw milk in her coffee, attend Mass on Sunday, fall from the top of a human pyramid the other dansmariekes trick her into mounting. Like a moth drawn to the flame, Rifka will not stop until she is one of us.
Drive for three hours in any direction inside the Netherlands and you’ll end up over the border in Germany, Belgium, or the North Sea. For such a small nation, the differences from village to village, city versus country, north and south can be intensely personal. My husband grew up in the southern city of Eindhoven, where the term import referred to anyone born in the north.
Rifka and her family are not the only outsiders in Niet van hier. Heleen inherited the last house in Z. She’s lived there now for a decade and still she is seen as an outsider. The local kids call her the witch of Z because “someone has to be.” It costs Heleen years and a tragedy to earn the local greeting.
The children and their parents raised their forefinger and sometimes a whole hand when they passed her by. She had the impression of being greeted and, simultaneously, being held at a distance.Judith Maassen, translated by Karen Kao
Children have always been cruel to outsiders, none more so than teenage girls. Maassen sketches an insular, xenophobic village that could have existed in the 1960s or 2023. That one-fingered greeting is still given today in the villages and towns of the Netherlands.
On the roof
Maassen has said that the idea for Niet van hier came to her in two visions. The first was of Nannie, dead in the ditch. The second was of a roofer, whose point of view opens the novel. From this pseudo-omniscient perspective, he observes the villagers as they grapple with Nannie’s death and judge the newcomers. Every morning, the roofer watches the teenagers assemble before the church for the long bike rider to school. He sees the dansmariekes accept and then reject Rifka though he doesn’t yet understand why.
From the roofer, Maassen moves to the points of view of Rifka and Heleen. This allows Maassen to fold the timeline so that we, as readers, can witness events relevant to Niet van hier. These switches in viewpoint work terrifically to heighten the tension. No one in the village knows exactly what’s going on but they all have their suspicions.
Though I stand on the rooftop and watch the unsuspecting people go about their daily business, I now realize that I understand only a tiny part of the world. There is no order in the world, not from on high, not even for God, let alone for a roofer.Judith Maassen, translated by Karen Kao
The story of the dead dansmarieke Nannie and the wannabe dansmarieke Rifka haunted me for days after I finished Niet van hier. It reminds me that the Dutch are not quite as tolerant as they like to think. In a village like Z, you don’t have to be an immigrant or a refugee to be rejected. All you have to be is not from here.
13 Apr 2023 | Karen Kao