A few months ago I hadn't heard of this book, or the author, Dutch writer Guus Kuijer. Then he won the Astrid Lindgren Award. Naturally I sought him out. Sadly there is little that has been translated into English. Apparently he feels that The Book of Everything is his best work, and this has been translated, and is readily available. Hopefully even more of his work will now be translated after winning such a major award.
The Book of Everything is an amazing book. Although I'm not really sure that I really understand it. A slim volume, a mere 123 pages. The story begins with a short prologue explaining that the author, an old man, wanted to write a different book, a book about his happy childhood. Instead he had a visit from Mr Klopper, who showed him a book that he had written when he was nine. Mr Klopper had not had a happy childhood.
Nine year old Thomas Klopper lives with his parents, and older sister Margot, who "went to high school and was as dumb as an ox." Thomas's father is rather a fire and brimstone man, who rules the roost in his small family, with force if needs be. He reads the bible every evening, and likes the wooden spoon and his fist to guide his family. It is Amsterdam, the summer of 1951.
Thomas is no ordinary boy as we learn from the very outset.
Thomas saw things noone else could see. He didn't know why, but it had always been like that. He could remember a violent hail storm one day. Thomas leapt into a doorway and watched the leaves being ripped from the trees. He ran home.
Thomas sees tropical fish swimming in the canals. He writes his thoughts and visions in a book, The Book of Everything. And he has a simple wish- to be happy when he grows up.
There are many biblical passages sprinkled throughout the book. The imagery is biblical too, the plagues of Egypt are invoked - rivers turning to blood, masses of frogs and swarms of gnats. This strange world of postwar Amsterdam makes for an intriguing read peopled as it is by Thomas and his family, their neighbour Mrs Amersfoort who all the local children believe to be a witch, and Eliza, a friend of Margot's who has a squeaky prosthetic leather leg, and is missing most of the fingers on one hand.
Mrs Amersfoort introduces Thomas to two classic children's novels- Emil and the Detectives, and Alone in the World (variably known as Nobody's Boy, or Sans Famille in the original French). I wish that I had read these two European classics to know more of what Guus Kuijer is telling me. I know that there's layers of meaning and symbolism that I'm too Australian to understand. A quick google tells me that Kamp Amersfoort was a Nazi concentration camp in Holland. I'm sure that this is no coincidence.
I know The Book of Everything would pay huge dividends to those that reread it. I hope I get the chance. I was thinking that I needed to reread it before I even finished it. Which isn't to say that it's a bad book, far from it, just a clever one that bears proper consideration.
I see in a happy coincidence that Guus Kuijer is in Sweden this week to celebrate his win, there are multiple events over the week leading up to the Award Ceremony on May 28 when HRH Crown Princess Victoria will present the award at Stockholm Concert Hall.