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Laura Watkinson in Berlin: Part 2

I have left my hometown of Amsterdam to come to Berlin for a few weeks to work on my translation of Cees Nooteboom’s book Berlijn, his account of his time spent in Germany from the years before the fall of the Wall until the present day. A native speaker of English, I have swapped my Dutch-speaking surroundings for a German-speaking environment. I am translating a Dutch book about Germany, sitting at a computer in Berlin, turning Dutch words about Germany into English words about Germany. Being in Berlin, as Nooteboom was, gives me the opportunity to visit the places he saw here, to see them not only through his writing, but with my own eyes.

One of the locations I knew I had to visit was the small village of Lübars, still part of Berlin, but as Nooteboom writes in his book, practically countryside. The writer sometimes used to go out to Lübars to escape from the city and the book describes his subsequent visits to the village and the changes that he sees as the political climate changes. Lübars was in the West, but only just. Although I was accustomed to the familiar photographs of the Wall dividing the urban landscape, Nooteboom’s account of the Wall in such rural surroundings somehow came as a surprise to me. He talks about the village pub, about girls riding horses, about fields and streams – and, cutting across the landscape, the incongruous Wall and its guardians. In his words, which are also, in a way, my words:

“I often visit Lübars, which is like a real village. It’s an illusion, as if there were lots of countryside stretching out all around. Two village pubs, a pump, a small church, a few graves. I walk out of the village along a path I’ve discovered. The first time, I came to a small river. I stood looking into the water, dark-coloured, fast-flowing, swaying water plants, the thought of fish. And that was when I noticed the sign. It said that the border ran down the middle of that river. The Wall might have been some distance away, but the other side, those dry reeds, that scattering of trees, that was the land of the Others. Now I saw the water differently. It was no more than a couple of metres wide, but the middle of that moving, transparent element was the border. That’s not something you should spend too much time thinking about, but I still did. East water, West water. Absolute nonsense, but still, that border is real. And it’s there. I carried on walking, up a hill. From there, I had a good view of the Wall. There were two of them. Between them was a kind of anti-tank ditch, loose sand, earth, soil. The strip of land rolled away into the distance. I walked on to where I would encounter the Wall; it was not made of bricks or concrete at that point, but of transparent steel mesh. A hundred metres beyond, in front of the other Wall, was a tower. A small car stood beside it. Then a window opened in the tower. I could see the silhouettes of two men. One of them directed his binoculars at me and took a good look. A one-way process. He could see me perfectly well, but I couldn’t see him. What did he think he was going to see when he looked at me? Why was he looking? I stood there for a while, experiencing the strange sensation of allowing myself to be looked at. I wanted to know what the man was thinking, but I never would. I didn’t want to know what he thought about me, but what he thought about himself. There was no way of knowing. Was he looking out of a sense of duty, conviction, boredom? Did he believe in what he was doing? There was, as far as I could tell, no human possibility that anything could ever occur between those two walls, not in that place, and certainly not starting from my side. So what was the point of watching? Did he spend hours of unutterable boredom in the tower? Or was it pure conviction? Did you go to that tower as you would to a job you enjoyed doing? What I really wanted was to go up into the tower and have a quick chat with him, but there was no chance of that happening.” (Nooteboom, Berlijn, p. 41)

My own visit to Lübars, all these years later, took me into the countryside. A quiet village, a somewhat gentrified village pub, fields, dogs, horses. No Wall. If you knew where to look, you could see where it had been. In fact, the cleared land of the death strip makes an excellent place to take horses out for a gallop. The stream, the river, where once a border ran down the middle, still flows along, turns into marsh, gets caught up in small pools. It divides the landscape and, at some points, makes it difficult for the casual walker to reach Lübars, but it’s no longer a political boundary, only a physical obstacle.

On one of his more recent visits to the village, Nooteboom spotted that the sign in the river indicating the border had gone, but the post it had been nailed to was still there. I didn’t see any post. It’s probably long rotted away, but perhaps I didn’t know where to look. That border, that solid Wall, the death strip, the guards, they have all vanished from the landscape, leaving behind the church and the pump and the pub, as they have existed for centuries.

Following Nooteboom’s descriptions in his book, I located a spot where he must have walked or stood. I took my copy of Berlijn, with Simone Sassen’s photograph of the Wall at Lübars, and held it up against the landscape to compare that same location, then and now. Lübars with the Wall; Lübars without the Wall. Where once that impenetrable concrete structure stood, there is now a line of trees and hedgerow.

I’m writing this piece on 30 September, International Translation Day. Translating Dutch into English, translating a person’s experiences, translating myself from one country to another. I translate the words and the places become even more real to me; and the words are somehow a little more my own when I follow the author and see what he’s seen.

Yesterday, I followed him to Berlin’s Museumsinsel, the Museum Island, where most of the city’s top museums are located. I saw ‘Schinkel’s giant marble dish’ in front of Das Alte Museum; Nooteboom witnessed members of the press climbing into this dish for a better view of the demonstrations that preceded the fall of the Wall. I saw the Pergamon Altar and statues of Anubis. However, one small exhibit made a large impact on me, a tattered piece of papyrus in Das Neue Museum, written on 18 April, 134 BC, and described as a ‘receipt of wages from a translator of the Trogodytes’ tribe’. Somehow, this evidence of the more mundane side of the translation profession seemed so much more personal and close to home than any surviving translations of literary texts. Translation may not be the oldest profession in the world, but translators have certainly been around for a very long time indeed. And perhaps that’s something to think about on International Translation Day.

Super June: A Bumper Month For MacLehose Press

June 2011 is a momentous month in the history of MacLehose Press. In the same month, we are publishing four genuine titans of international literature, from Norway, Lebanon, The Netherlands and Italy. Each is amongst the most well-regarded authors in their respective countries and beyond, and each of these works is represents a milestone in the development of the MacLehose list.


Roy Jacobsen was born in Oslo in 1954. Growing up at a time when the German  occupation in the Second World War had consigned Norway to desperate poverty, Jacobsen began as a writer by rewriting happy endings to his favourite novels (more on this in our interview). He published a book of short stories in 1982, and this has been followed by a further eighteen novels or volumes of stories, of which Child Wonder is the most recent. He is winner of the prestigious Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature and two of his novels have been nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize.


Elias Khoury, born in Beruit in 1948, is a towering presence in the world of Arabic letters. Fittingly, As Though She Were Sleeping won the inaugural Prix du Roman Arabe in 2008. It is Khoury’s eleventh novel; two of Humphrey Davies’ translations of Khoury’s work have won the Banipal Prize for Arabic Translation: The Gate of the Sun and Yalo. Khoury has taught at a number of universities worldwide and has edited the cultural sections of Lebanon’s most significant newspapers. Khoury, along with  other intellectuals and political activists, was involved in forming the Lebanese Political Party Democratic Left Movement.


Earlier this year Cees Nooteboom was the honoured guest and sole subject of the Dedica Festival, established to recognize and explore though various art forms the work of one significant cultural figure each year. Nooteboom published his first novel at the age of twenty-two, winning the Anne Frank Prize. The Following Story, a winner of the Aristeion Prize is perhaps his best-known work in English. Nooteboom was recently named as one of the fifteen best travel writers of the last hundred years by Newsweek.


Roberto Saviano shot to international prominence with his bestselling exposure of the Neopolitan mafia, Gomorrah. But fame has come at price: he is in constant danger from mafia hit-men and requires a permanent guard of carabinieri. Beauty and the Inferno, his second book, was the winner of the 201o European Book Prize. In the last two years, Saviano has defied those who would silence him by presenting the Italian television show Vieni via con me, which continues to draw huge audiences and receives exception critical reviews. We will soon publish his short fiction.

MacLehose Press Publicity: 16/5/11

Considering that copies of Beauty and the Inferno only went out on Thursday morning, it is especially gratifying to see the Sunday Times review of it in this weekend’s paper:

“Saviano has come in to a lot of violent criticism over the years, so before offering an opinion on this collection of his work, I should state that I yield to nobody in my admiration for his courage. In writing about the Neapolitan mafia he has put his life on the line and deserves recognition for immense bravery . . .  the essays, interviews and reviews in Beauty and the Inferno reflect many of his preoccupations, and share a common theme – the underdog fighting back against the bad guys . . .


What strikes you as you read these pieces is how astonishingly solipsistic Saviano has become during his enforced isolation . . . Saviano constantly  says that it’s the writing that keeps him alive, and that’s the only thing he has left . . . His prose is succinct, he never pulls his punches, his message is incredibly important, and the facts he includes are like bombshells . . . he wants us to see that Italy is in abject denial about the seriousness of its current situation. Because of fear or laziness, most Italians, he reports, look the other way, preferring not to acknowledge that the country has been overrun by cement, cocaine, cartels and dismal, dismal television. Only a few priests, campaigning journalists and brave investigators seem to care and, more to the point, even fewer see the connections between those things. That is why Saviano is so angry.”

Tickets for the 2 screenings for Roberto Saviano: In The Shadow of Death at the London International Documentary Festival on the 19th & 20th can now be bought through the LIDF website:

The screenings include a post-screening discussion with some of the leading names in the investigation and research into organized crime within Italy and Europe, including:

Thursday 19th May

  • Misha Glenny – British journalist who specializes in southeastern Europe and global organized crime
  • John Dickie – Professor in Italian Studies at UCL
  • Federico Varese – Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford
  • Elisa Mantin – Director of the documentary who spent a month with Roberto Saviano
  • Chaired by: Annalisa Piras -  Writer, broadcaster, freelance commentator on EU and Italian Current Affairs, TV producer with 20 years experience in International Journalism, print and broadcast. Dateline Panel at BBC + Contributor/Presenter at BBC Radio 4 + 6 years as Board Member and President of the Foreign Press Association in London


Friday 20th May

  • John Foot – Professor of Modern Italian History in the Department of Italian, UCL.
  • Federico Ippoliti – Expert on organized crime from Circolo Radio Londra of the London group of the Italian party Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà (Left Ecology and Freedom, SEL).
  • Christopher Duggan – Professor of Italian History, University of Reading. Director of Centre for Modern Italian History.
  • Gaia Servadio – Vice-President Foreign Press Association, London, and author
  • Elisa Mantin – Director of the documentary who spent a month with Roberto Saviano
  • Chaired by: Annalisa Piras


John Self’s review of The Sickness for his extremely popular blog site, The Asylum (think Ready Steady Books at its height three years ago) is perfection itself – and very timely given the IFFP awards ceremony coming up on the 26th May:

“Here is something which felt like a very great treat. Admittedly it scratched several of my itches before I even opened it – translated fiction, slim volume, the MacLehose  imprimatur – but I was still delighted when I started it and felt myself to be in the presence of something like real literature. The Sickness (La Enfermedad, tr. Margaret Jull Costa) is a small and piercing volume, a literary stiletto; quiet, intense and directed. It exerts an ambiguous pull on the reader’s inner hypochondriac, tickling delicately those intimations of mortality that we cannot look at directly but cannot bear to pull ourselves away from … the richness of the book (it packs a lot in to its 150 pages) is enhanced by Tyszka’s introduction of passages from other authors, from Charles Baudelaire to William Carlos Williams, on the subjects around sickness. It seems to be an acknowledgement that this is a meditation on a subject, disguised as a novel. But for all its provocations, it gets pretty deep into the heart with the central story, which spares the reader nothing.

One of Dr Miranda’s colleagues regularly wonders, ‘Why do we find it so hard to accept that life is pure chance?’ . . . The Sickness helps explain why we find it so hard to understand: because to do so is to accept that life is not a story with a moral, but is chaos which ends randomly. In working this knowledge into a story which takes on an understood form, and splices in a couple of seductive plots, Tyszka is either having his cake and eating it, or subversively spiking the drink.”

The Folded Earth continues to garner global reviews with this one from Belletrista – the website which celebrates female writers around the world:

“rich evocative novel … Roy’s book is gorgeously written. The graceful prose is strewn with insights into the Indian psyche and landscape, and is laced with subtle humour and vibrant characters that together captivate from beginning to end. She tells a simple story set in a little village but, as the poetic title suggests, the earth folds in on itself so that, even in this microcosm, people cannot escape the machinery at work in the greater world: antagonism and hatred between different cultures and religious peoples, and bribery and corruption in political circles, are as ever-present here as they are in the wider sphere. The Folded Earth is an accomplished and enjoyable book. It made me want to rush out to find Roy’s debut novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, which was published in 2008 and has been translated already into fifteen languages.”

And this review in the Deccan Herald, which is a newspaper with a circulation of 100,000+:

The Folded Earth has a poetic quality to it that brings home the wind, the fragrances and the sounds of her tale … Taken as a whole, The Folded Earth is a brilliant read. The slightly slow pace of the story is well balanced by entertaining and engaging narratives that contribute to the story in a real way … In some ways, The Folded Earth makes you believe in re-starting your life, whether there is a need to, or not. Thought-provoking stories are not to be found by the dozen, and The Folded Earth is that much more valuable for the flair with which it has been written.”

PLUS, I can now announce that Cees Nooteboom will be in conversation with A.S. Byatt during the LRB World Literature Weekend on the 17th June. They’ll be in the Stevenson Room at the British Museum at 4.30pm

Tickets: £9 / £6 conc contact 0207 269 9030
Nearest Tube: Holborn

Cees Nooteboom is one of the Netherlands’ most distinguished living authors, whose latest book The Foxes Come At Night, is a series of linked stories set in the islands of the Mediterranean. Nooteboom will be discussing his life, work and travels with the Booker Prize-winning novelist and critic A.S. Byatt.

Hope to see you there