Thursday 7 May 2009

A Table Full of Butterflies

“Hey, that’s Dutch! I can read that!”
Tuesday, my first day at Bloomsbury, and I already felt at home enough to shout and attract everyone’s attention. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing.
“What does it say?” asked the editor on who’s desk I had spotted the word ‘vlinders’.
“A table full of butterflies,” I said. Odd, isn’t it, that Tim Krabbé has to be the first since my arrival in London to make me proud of my origin. In a publishing house, of all places.
“Do we have anything Dutch we can ask her to read?”asked another editor.
“You can read this for us,” the first said, “if you like. But we do need the book back afterwards. It’s our only copy.”

So I took Een Tafel Vol Vlinders back home and forced myself to read it instead of Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, which I also happen to be reading. I took a bit of a detour, getting off at Liverpool Street to exchange my second copy of Mother’s Milk for a book of which I now don’t even remember author or title. I felt that was the least I could do, considering that, if it weren’t my first day at Bloomsbury, I would have been volunteering for Choose What You Read. I remember I preferred to read the CWYR book over Krabbé, though, because in the first paragraph the main character read in the newspaper that his dad had died. He hadn’t been informed personally because he had his mobile off all day, due to an important meeting, but he hoped his dad had suffered.

The next morning when I got to the office, I told the editor over coffee what I thought of A Table Full Of Butterflies. I can tell you the plot here, ‘cause if it’s up to me it won’t be translated any way.

Fred is middle-aged, blasé and has ‘sort of’ failed in his ambitions: to be an explorer and a novelist. He now earns his money as a travel-journalist. In the opening of the book he is climbing a beautiful volcano. But Fred is not impressed; Fred is annoyed with his fellow travellers and is inclined to give up several metres before he reaches the top. When his wife calls him on his mobile and tells him to call her as soon as he gets back to his hotel, he is convinced that his stepson, Bram, is dead. He starts imagining the funeral and reminiscing their life together.
His real father committed suicide when Bram was only three weeks old. Fred started dating his mother, Nicolien, soon after, and became Bram’s dad. When Nicolien got married to another man, John, Fred adopted Bram. He wanted his stepson to be special, to be the writer and adventurer that he failed to be. Bram tried to live up to these expectations and hitch hiked to New-Zealand when he was eighteen. He came back to Holland after that, but just to earn some money before leaving off again. When Bram drives Fred to the airport to go to his volcano-trip, he tells him he’s in love. Fred is unsympathetic and warns him not to grow too attached: men are meant to be great, women are meant to keep them small.
The second part is a first person narrative and takes off when, Bram, the new main character, meets his first true love: Emma. For the first time in his life he doesn’t feel lonely. But he experiences her as a “dil-emma”: his past (the ambitions Fred has superimposed on him) on the one hand, and his future (being happy with Emma) on the other. He takes Fred’s last words very seriously, and agrees that Emma is holding him down. With this insight, his love for her starts to fade, but his ambition to explore the world doesn’t revive. And that’s why he decides to take after his real dad and do himself in.

Because the book takes off with an unsatisfied, complaining old man, I was inclined to put the book down after the first 10 pages. The atmosphere is depressing, and I can’t feel any sympathy for someone who is suddenly convinced that his son is dead when there is no real reason to assume so.
It gets better when the focus shifts to Bram. However, when he starts to see Emma as a burden, I got the impression Krabbé was just being plain sexist. That’s when I realised that all women in the book are unfaithful (while all the men are reliable), and when I stopped caring whether Bram would actually be dead, as Fred predicted in the beginning, or not.
I guess most readers finished it because they got it given for free, because there was a lot of media coverage (there always is a lot of media coverage for the National Book Week Present), because Tim Krabbé is famous in Holland, and because it was really short.
Stripped from one (or more) of these advantages, I think the book loses all appeal.


  1. Men who have been jilted (or cuckolded) can write very bitter novels. Have you read A handful of dust by Evelyn Waugh?

  2. Wow. That book sounds absolutely miserable!

  3. Oh my. Life's too short to read a miserable book, especially if you don't care for the characters. I bet the author is a complete 'picnic' at parties.

  4. it would be rather inappropriate to write a book about suicide without being miserable, don't you think?

    and i think it should be said: women do tend to hold men back and distort their ambitions.

    you're even doing it yourself, telling that author not to write about life the way he experiences it: miserable and held back by treacherous women.

  5. mr. Bananas: No. Should I?

    Mishi: yeah, be glad you don't have to read it! as Lily Pig said, life's too short for that indeed! I'm happy to be reading a much nicer manuscript right now, for my internship as well, by James Harris. It's hilarious - and, George it happens to be about suicide as well. This book proves that depression doesn't have to make the main character less likable!

    Oh, and I think men who allow their girlfriends to hold them back are just looking for excuses not to pursue their dreams. They're not even man enough to admit that they are too weak to live up to their dreams. I think that's what makes Bram nicer than Fred, by the way: Fred doesn't admit that he has failed because of his own doing, while Bram goes out, travels the world, writes and finds the girl, and then kills himself - because that's where the problem lies! - when he's disappointed with it all.

  6. I think the plot covers topics you're interested in and I'd be interested to hear what you make of Lady Brenda.

  7. I had trouble reading the plot outline it was so bad!!!