Hans Maarten van den Brink (born in Oegstgeest, in the Netherlands in 1956) is, I daresay, little known in North America. I’m not sure what being “editor-in-chief of VPRO, Holland’s premier television network” means. The author note of his only book translated into English, Over het water (1998)/On the Water (2001) says he has “written widely about the culture of the Netherlands and the United States and about bullfighting,” which sounds fairly intriguing. What stimulated me to read On the Water was not its author’s fame, but blurbs from two writers for whose work I have high regard, André Aciman (Out of Egypt, Call Me By Your Name) and Matthew Stadler (Landscape/Memory, Allan Stein).
Having found the short novel undernourishing, I am puzzled by Aciman’s claim that in it, “two young men find themselves bound to a passion more powerful than any they will know” (presumably know later). Insofar as there is passion in the novel, it is for competitive rowing. In that most of the book chronicles their training and competition when they were seventeen, looking forward to the 1940 Tokyo Olympics (which the reader knows would not happen) and that the narrator, David, is looking back in 1944, there is no basis for concluding that he never felt a greater passion.
As for his mate, the Jewish boy who steered (worked the rudder), David, neither the reader nor the narrator knows what happened to him after the 1939 champion (of the Netherlands) race, or, for that matter, what passions he may have experienced before then. Indeed, it remains mysterious to me why the affluent boy with friends committed himself to the intense training regimen of their German coach, Schneiderhanh (whose politics, that is, commitment to the Nazi Reich, also is never established: he may have been a spy for the Reich or the business that took him away from Amsterdam may have been real, whether legitimate or shady). David seems as incurious about Anton’s homelife (or the existence of any lovelife) as Anton is about David’s. (Anton furtively walks by David’s parents’ house once, but never darkens its doorway.)
Anton is too focused on increasing his strength and rowing ability to be aware of the catastrophe brewing, and if David ever said anything to reveal anxiety about what was ahead for Europe in general, Jews in particular, Anton was not paying attention and does not mention it. Though I’d mostly concur with Stadler that the book is an “elegy to a time and a friendship that history destroyed” (I’m not sure David considered Anton a friend or even that Anton presumed to consider himself one), that van den Brenk “uncovers the great panorama of changes the onset of war wrought on a city, a nation, and a young man” is totally unjustified. Circa 1944, Anton sees that the boathouses along the Amstel River, including that of the club to which he and David belonged and rowed for, are gone or going. But of the social structure of Amsterdam or of Europe, Anton has no perspective, let alone any insights -whether that of the Nazi Occupation nor of the sociopolitical background to the idyll of hard work of 1938-39 teaming with David (who did express amazement at Anton’s obliviousness to what was going on in the country and continent in 1938-39).
I don’t find On the Water a particularly impressive historical novel, and it is too focused on the details of training and rowing even to provide more than glances at David. The shy working-class Anton is somewhat more developed, but not really all that much so. The “tragedy” of not being able to race another year is minor compared to what happened to most of Europe’s Jews (leaving aside the ravages of total war) and I think van den Brink’s narrative profiteers from knowing what was coming (more than a decade before the author himself was born) and doesn’t really “earn” the elegy for youth of the late-1930s.