About the Dutch National Book Week and the Horrors of an Oral Examination

About the Dutch National Book Week and the Horrors of an Oral Examination - a blog by Lars Sanders

Yesterday marked the start of the traditional Dutch Book Week, an event to promote buying books. To start things off, all writers of a certain name and fame met for drinks and dances at “The Book Ball”, leaving the ones that were not invited grudging about why they had to spend the evening at home. The rest of the week, a booklet that is written especially for the occasion is added as a gift when one buys books for a certain amount of money. And although promoting the buying of books is certainly something to be positive about, I have reason to be slightly negative this time.

The Fresh Prince

Every year the Book Week has a theme, and this year that theme is Germany. The head of the Dutch Goethe Institute, which promotes the German language, exclaimed: “Cultural minded Dutch people are all crazy about Germany.”1 When “cultural minded” people start flocking towards something, it always makes me skeptical. First, I just think it is sheepish to run after every cultural hype. Second, I am bothered by the all-out positive stance that suddenly is taken towards German literature. Readers of my blogs are probably aware that not all German literature is good, some titles not even deserving the classification. But enough ranting for now, it’s time to get to something called literature.

The media attention on Book Week somehow awakened a memory in me about one of my first encounters with German literature. It was 1996, and I had the honour of being educated in the German language by Mr. Prins. Prins is Dutch for prince, and Mr. Prins was one of two princes prominent in my life back then, the other being Will Smith in the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”. In due course, Mr. Prins was jokingly nicknamed “Der Frische Prinz” in a crude German translation by me and my brother. But the reason I mention him here is different: for some reason, Mr. Prins wanted all his pupils to read a book by the ominous writer Heinz G. Konsalik.

Love Nights in the Taiga

This former member of the Gestapo2 got very, very popular in the late sixties and kept up a steady output of writing until his death in 1999. His novels with titles like Love Nights in the Taiga and Spies love Dangerously3 sold by the millions. One can imagine that for a sixteen-year-old boy it is hard to pick one of these enchanting titles. First, my choice was for a novel called Punishment Battalion 999. Mr. Prins lauded that as an excellent choice, but after fifty pages my opinion was different. The day before my oral examination, I went to the school library for an alternative and somehow the title Das Schloss der blauen Vögel (“The Castle of Blue Birds”) caught my attention. This choice would make Mr. Prins’ jaw drop the next day.

This novel from 1968 is about the successful brain surgeon Gerd Sassner. His life seems to be all in order: a career, a happy family, a house, a boat, and whatever designates a man that has it made. But one day, Gerd returns from a fishing trip with an old shoe. He places it on the table and introduces it to his family as an old friend he lost sight of in World War Two. It soon becomes clear Gerd is not joking. When he wants to take the shoe to a business meeting, his wife decides to have him examined by a doctor. After experimental brain surgery he seems to recover, but shortly later he disappears without a trace and all assume he has committed suicide.

Rinsed with washing detergent

But that is not the end of Gerd Sassner. He didn’t commit suicide but went hitchhiking and was picked up by the wife of a hotel owner. Gerd manages to make the wife completely subservient to him, alcoholises her husband and takes over the hotel. The hotel, baptized “The Castle of Blue Birds” for some reason, is transformed into a clinic to cure people of their stupidity. And this is where the story takes a turn for the grotesque…

The guests of the hotel all become involuntary patients in Doctor Sassner’s… well, let’s say experimental approach of therapy. A first victim gets her brain removed, after which the grey mass is rinsed with washing detergent and placed back with no result. Several victims have similar fates before the police storms the building and arrests Sassner. He gets another surgery to cure him of his evil ways and that’s the end of that.4

Well….I was in for a surprising read that day and so was Mr. Prins the next. After a day of having pupils tell him about love nights in the Taiga, he expected to hear about a punishment battalion during World War Two. I still remember the expression on his face when I summarised the book I actually read. My oral exam was disturbed several times by exclaims of horror. Still, I got a good grade and all is well that ends well. But fact is that I never touched a book written by Konsalik again, and Book Week won’t change that.

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders
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  1. Nederland en Duitsland zijn ook buren in hun talen in Trouw, March 11th, 2016 

  2. O. Koehler, Gestapomann Konsalik in Die Zeit, August 2nd, 1996 

  3. https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinz_G._Konsalik, last seen March 12th, 2016 

  4. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Das_Schlo%C3%9F_der_blauen_V%C3%B6gel_%28Roman%29, last seen March 12th, 2016