Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).



He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.



Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.



After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.



Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gedichten van Wang Wei (701-761)


(1)   Inham te Mengcheng

mijn nieuwe woning in een gat in de muur
van de oude bomen is een zwakke wilg over
wie is de nieuweling, dat hij komt
en in het lege treurt om mensen die het vulden


(2) Heldere bamboebergen

bamboes sieren de stroom van de leegte
vogelgroen komen de rimpelingen
wie op het bergpad in stilte sprokkelt
valt niet te kennen


(3) Hertenpark

op de laatste berg zul je geen mensen zien
daar klinkt weergalm van taal alleen
licht dringt tussen de bomen terug
opnieuw belicht komt mos naar voren


(4) Magnoliapark

herfstbergen koesteren resten van licht
een vogel jaagt een andere voor zich uit
flitsen ijsvogelgroen zie je
maar niet de rustplaats van de avondmist


(5) Yin Yao in memoriam

we brachten je terug begroeven je op de rotstorenberg
tussen groene dennen en cypressen worden de gasten teruggebracht
begraven botten, witte wolken duren, meer niet
al blijft er een stroom naar de mensenwereld


(6) Bij het oversteken naar Qinghe

een zeilboot op de grote rivier
water opgetast tot de hemelrand verdween
tegen de hemel braken opeens golven open
daar lag een stad: ontelbare vertrekken
verder varend zag ik een muur, een markt
maar ze deden mij denken aan moerbei, hennep
ik keek om naar waar ik vandaan kom
water reikt zo ver: houdt wolken en rood bij elkaar


(7) Bij het bestijgen van de toren op de stadsmuur van Hebei

een dorp op de rotsen
tussen wolken en mist houdt de reiziger verblijf
hoog gevestigd zie ik de zon dalen
een uiterste oever spiegelt bergen groen
bij vuur langs het water is het bootje geborgen
bij vissers zijn de avondvogels thuis
stilte: hemel en aarde bij avond
het hart vrij, mét de brede rivier

--vertaald door Lloyd Haft (uit Vijfhonderd opzichters van vijfhonderd bibliotheken doven de lichten: gedichten uit China, Taiwan, Korea en Japan vertaald voor Hans Bleyerveld, Leiden, Uitgeverij Plantage 1997)

Link: voor gedichten van Wang Wei vertaald door Silvia Marijnissen, ga naar

http://www.silviamarijnissen.nl/index.php/2010/wang-wei-pei-di-bij-de-rivier-de-wang/

Gedichten van Meng Jiao 1 (‘Koude Beek’)

KOUDE BEEK (deel 1)

(1)

Vorst spoelt de laatste
kleur uit de beek:
de schubben van de vissen
zijn helder, te tellen.

Wie ben ik, dat ik mij spiegel
hier, aan deze leegte,
zoek mijn gedaante
terug in de resten?

Wat troebel was, kan zich
hier nergens verbergen -
opengelegd tot de bodem,
schitterend fel,

open als het hart van wie
Goeden heten
verslindt het als zij
van omlaag de mens,

geeft te zien
hoe ondiep het hart:
in één nacht bevroren,
's morgens weer smeltend.

Kon ik mijn handen maar wassen
in puur smaragd -
weg, wat de duizenden
zorgen afzetten!

Klaar nu: de stroom,
door mensenvoeten bezoedeld,
keert niet terug
naar de bron, naar de bergen.


(2)

De weg langs de oever
naar de stad van de mens
gaat door waar ik woon.
Zie deze beek:

dit blanke ijs
dat eenmaal bevaren
gierend als groen
jaspis breekt.

Groen water dat
tot groene jade aaneenvriest;
witte golven die zich
tot witte tafelen opsteken.

In de oudste aller spiegels,
één voor één lichtend,
komen de dingen op,
elk even bleek.

Stappen die wankelen,
hachelijke bochten eronder:
houd je vast aan de tak
die kraakt, de weduwenkreet.

Als de schroeiende vorstlucht
even optrekt
blijkt het vriezende licht
in zwakte overal één.

Zetelend in twijfels,
uitziend, luisterend,
het pad kwijt, kom ik
ergens heen:

kinderen langs de kant
die doorns bij elkaar harken
en enige woorden,
meest droeve, delen.


(3)

Vanmorgen een glaasje
sterk gedronken
en over de sneeuw
naar de beek gekomen:

golven bevroren
tot het messen waren
die de buiken sneden
uit de watervogels.

Ze dachten te broeden,
werden tot veren gehakt;
hun stem werd bloed
dat het zand neerzoog.

Staande maar alleen,
wat zou ik nog zeggen?
Laat ik de kreet van het hart
koesteren, sprakeloos.

Zoek in bevroren bloed
liever geen lente:
als dit lente is
wordt er nooit meer geboren.

Zoek in bevroren bloed
liever geen bloesem:
uit deze kleur komt alleen
de weduwenkreet omhoog.

Dorp verholen in duister,
distel, doorn:
in het ijs gelegd,
in steile dode voren.


(4)

Men puntert, stoot
uit de stroom van jade sterren los,
volgt de tunnel die hij trekt,
door zijn vuurvliegen omzwermd.

In het noorden bevroren:
de klacht bereikt de bodem.
Bezing terwijl je verhongert de vissen:
verzonken, ver in bederf.

Tanden van ijs malen,
kauwen op elkaar,
klokken die droef
in de wind klepperen.

Aan rein verdriet
is hier geen ontkomen:
te voorschijn gespoeld:
gehoord tot de fijnste resten.

De groene golven allang
opgerold, ten einde,
hun kleuren als garen
door de wind weggelegd.

Ondervoets glibbert het:
hier geen staan.
Een tak die afbreekt:
moet ik mij daaraan optrekken?

Slik tussen het hijgen door
je klacht in.
Wou je het daar boven afsmeken,
een rust in het traject?

--Meng Jiao (751-814). Uit Meng Jiao, Jonggestorven abrikozen, vertaald door Lloyd Haft, Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep 2003.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Heavy Ships (story; Part 3 of 3)


(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異 by Lloyd Haft)


The following week, on Wednesday evening around sunset, Geert and I joined Anny in her car to drive down to The Hague. Geert had invited me cryptically to be his introducé at ‘a reception that I’m sure you’ll enjoy, with your interest in ships’; Anny was going too.
        In the car on the way down, neither of them talked about the reception. When I asked about it, Geert said with a smile: ‘Just wait, you’ll see. This won’t be a wasted evening for Hal – right, Anny?’ Anny kept looking at the road ahead, smiled vaguely and said nothing.
        Our destination turned out to be an old elegant hotel in the heart of the city. ‘I wouldn’t exactly compare it with Sociëteit de Harmonie in Batavia, but it’s a nice place,’ said Geert. We went in and found ourselves in a thronging mass of humanity. At the reception desk, people were standing in line with luggage, coats and umbrellas. The lounge was full of other people standing around with baggage, apparently waiting to leave; yet at the same time a reception was going on. Waiters in coat-and-tails were walking around with trays full of drinks; well-dressed guests, most of them elderly, talked and laughed while gesticulating with pieces of cheese and candied ginger mounted on cocktail toothpicks. I feasted my American eyes on this Old World scene.
        It was too crowded for us to move around, but Geert didn’t seem to mind. We stayed just inside the front door, but eventually a waiter came around with drinks. Motioning Anny to take one; he picked up two glasses of jenever and gave me one of them. Calmly observing the chaos around him, he seemed not to be looking for anything in particular, but he looked at his watch from time to time.
When a group of Japanese, all wearing identical orange baseball caps, wormed their way in with their bulky suitcases and cameras, he watched with amusement: ‘Great caps they’ve got on! Just like an army, but now their weapon is money. One way or another, wherever they go they’re an army!’
And there were people in the crowd wearing real uniforms, including a Dutch Post Office employee wearing a grey jacket that looked exactly like the one I had worn as a boy in America, whenever my friends and I played ‘war’ and I was a ‘German,’ and a police officer in a dark blue uniform with riding pants and boots, who reminded me of the German S.S.
The lounge, already so full, kept getting fuller: still more tired-looking groups carrying bags from Schiphol Airport, still more plump Eurasian ladies in long dresses. The hubbub was loud and constant, but there seemed to be no focus, no center of attention.
        Before long we had finished our first round of drinks. When a waiter came around with another tray, Geert looked at his watch and said: ‘You two have another one; I have to go get ready. Anny, we’re in Room Four, in about fifteen minutes, ja?’
        She nodded and took another glass of orange juice. Though the first glass had gone strongly to my head, I took another jenever. The unstructured warmth of the reception filled me with a strange comfort; as a foreigner I was, as Mevrouw van Sassen was fond of saying, ‘watching a free movie’.
        Anny apparently felt obliged to keep me good company. As soon as Geert had left, she began systematically explaining every detail of the dresses the Eurasian women were wearing, and their hairdos, and their jewelry. Meanwhile she looked at her watch every few seconds. After about five minutes had gone by, she said: ‘I think we’d better start moving toward the back; we have to get to Room Four. There’s going to be a little ceremony.’
        Inch by inch we worked our way past all manner of legs and shoes and suitcases. Finally we came out at the beginning of a long hallway. Strangely, it was practically deserted, and now Anny’s movements became energetic, determined; she positively marched in the direction of Room Four, greeting the occasional waiter or man in uniform with a businesslike smile.
The door of Room Four was half open. The lighting in the room was very dim, but I could see a row of ten folding chairs facing a podium with a piano on it. On one of the chairs sat Geert, with a man in uniform on either side of him. All the chairs were occupied; other people were standing right behind them, and still others were now coming in through another door at the back.
        ‘Too bad for Mijnheer Cornelisse, ’ Anny said: ‘that he has to sit there all alone.’
        I was startled by her use of the more formal ‘Mijnheer Cornelisse’ instead of ‘Geert.’ It didn’t sound like a joke; rather like an abrupt shift in the frame of relationships, as if by transferring him to a more distant dimension of address, she was also shutting herself off from me.
And why had she said he was there “all alone,” when so clearly he was not? I began wondering if the Dutch phrase for “all alone” in this context could be taken to mean not really “alone” but specifically “without you and me,” or something of the kind.
        While we stared blankly at each other, a young woman struck up an introduction on the piano. The sudden sound crashed over me, sending a wave of gooseflesh across my back and arms. A beautiful young blonde woman in a purple evening gown, standing beside the piano, began to sing:

Bist du bei mir,
geh ich mit Freuden
zum Sterben
und zu meiner Ruh.

If you’re with me
I’ll go with joy
to dying,
to my rest.

I had the iciest gooseflesh I had ever experienced, but now I was rudely shoved aside by a couple of young men rushing into the room from behind us. One of them, wearing a field-grey Wehrmacht uniform, spurted out without looking back: ‘’tschuldigung!’ The other, in a sailor’s uniform, did look back, but when his gaze met mine it was clear that he did not see me. The ribbon around the rim of his cap bore a text in blackletter: Gneisenau.


Ach, wie vergnügt
wär so mein Ende,
es drückten deine lieben Hände
mir die getreuen Augen zu!

Oh, what a pleasure
my end would be
if it were your dear hands
shutting my faithful eyes!

‘Those guys have the nerve!’ I said to Anny: ‘Showing up in German uniforms! Won’t the audience be offended?’
        ‘What do you mean, “German”?’
        ‘Well – aren’t those German uniforms those guys are wearing?’
        ‘What guys?’ – but her fingers were digging into my arm. ‘Come on,’ she said in the same strange tone as a moment ago: ‘Let’s go. Actually I didn’t realize it was going to be this. I don’t think we’re supposed to stay for this, and I have to go to work early tomorrow.’
        All the way to the car, and on the road back to Leiden, Anny continued to talk in her strange new tone of voice – animated yet somehow absent – about formal dress and evening gowns, but I heard hardly a word of what she was saying. I was still in Room Four. What continued to rivet my attention was not so much what had happened, or perhaps I should say what I had experienced. Whether or not I had accurately seen what I had called ‘Germans’; the undeniable sudden depersonalizing shift in Anny’s manner of referring to Geert – these questions gradually receded from my focus as we now drove along the National Highway, continuing past Wassenaar, past fields and trees along the roadside that reminded me of similar open spaces I had often seen as a child in Wisconsin, in places with Dutch names like Bergen and Oostburg and Vandenbroek.
There are times when the human mind, faced with an imminent and dangerous overload, seizes gladly on a disturbing, turbulent element – unpleasant yet concrete, identifiable – and prefers obsession with that element to any continuation of chaos and incomprehension. At this moment in the car, my thoughts circled buzzard-like around the idea that there had been something incorrect about the musical setting of ‘Bist du bei mir...’ that I had just heard in Room Four.
The object of my obsession was the transition, as I now believed I remembered it, from ‘go with joy’ to ‘to dying.’ The pianist and singer in Room Four had rendered that passage very differently from the way I thought I knew it by heart. Starting with ‘to,’ their melodic line had been pitched lower than the one I remembered and had actually been subvocally singing at that moment, and the accompanying chords, in an equally unfamiliar harmonization, put a very different emotional cast on the whole: darker, ominous. In their version, starting with ‘dying’ it was more difficult to sense any rhythm, any connection, in what followed. In all the years since I had last seen Oma alive, I had carried around with me the memory of a more cheerful setting – cheerful and yet, I now realized, perhaps not real, not present to others than myself.
Had I myself intuited or devised a brighter setting in an effort to make Oma less sorrowful than she so often had been in my experience, to make my enduring sense of her a happy one? Or had the musical alteration been caused not by the mechanics of my mind but somehow by Oma herself? Had she herself sung the song to me in an unorthodox, happier melody simply because she felt joy in my presence?
In such matters, who can tell directions? Who can say where the fertile impulse comes from? In the unfinished poem that Slauerhoff wrote on the death of his baby son, he refers to:

...shadow cast on stone
by wind-moving leaves...

Read strictly according to grammar, this implies that the movement of the wind above the grave, the only thing that stays forever above the grave, is initiated by, would not exist without the fragile mortal leaves themselves.
While I was pondered these things, we were driving through ‘Vandenbroek.’ I had once been here on a short bicycle trip with Anny, when we came here to buy wonton skins at a local delicatessen. That day I had asked why she had chosen psychiatry as her specialty.
        ‘Well,’ she had said, ‘the driving forces of our lives, the real motivations, mostly stay unconscious. Our life floats on a surface. What’s under that surface – that’s what I wanted to know.’ End of answer. End of conversation.
        Since then, she had hardly ever again spoken of psychology or of inner things. She always had much to say, but only about concrete facts in a concrete world. I wondered if long-term habituation to professional platitudes, together with constant exposure to conventional society with its useless but sanctioned dime-store wisdoms, had caused her to relegate the dangerous but passion-rich areas of mystery to a less satisfying but more communicable plane.
In any case, I now realized as we left ‘Vandenbroek’ behind us, it would be useless to try to talk to Anny about the more hopeful shadow version of Dying that I shared with Oma. Or about the other secret that I shared with Oma, a secret that was a person: her son my father, who in the language of conventionality was “dead” and yet could move within me, in or through or during or by means of my feelings as they rose and fell like waves on the never-ending, ever-expanding surface of the unfathomable.
        I suddenly realized that one of the things my father had inherited from Oma must have been a weaker than usual orientation toward forms, a thinner interest in objective existence as such. Perhaps that in turn had given him diminished vitality, such that sooner or later he was bound to run into a premature fatality. The fact that Oma had so often walked around in the otherwise cheery kitchen singing a song about death was an indication. She was simply one of that minority of the human race who even during their life in the visible world are already, or are still, standing with one leg elsewhere, just as their heart is elsewhere. Their knowledge of the here and now is a footnote, a lesser commentary on a wider knowledge: of death, a deeper expanse reaching on and beyond our limited and limiting life. What interests them is not the daily and hourly plunge of fact into forgetting but the rich inexhaustible stream of what remains under it, different yet related, incompatible yet inseparable.
And when they have departed this life, they continue to be, but in a way that has become at last their own: not after this life but beside it, lasting alongside it.
        It was well that I could no longer consult Oma, could not ask her once and for all what she thought about Dying. For me to go on walking alongside Oma and my father, there must be no place, no time, no sector of previously known experience where I now defined them to be. I must let them go and keep going. Not leave them, but let go.
The next day, Thursday, I was the only one at home in ‘The Indies.’ Even toward evening, at the hour when Anny normally drank a cup of tea with Mevrouw van Sassen before leaving for her evening shift at the hospital, the house was empty.
        The next day as well, nobody was around but me. Late in the afternoon, when I returned from a class, I found a letter in my mailbox. There was no stamp and the envelope was not pasted shut. I read:

Hello Hal,

Could you join me tomorrow (Saturday) at 13:30 in Mevrouw van Sassen’s room for some soup? There are some things that I need to discuss with you as soon as possible. Please let me know if you are prevented .

With best regards,
Anny

Since the letter mentioned ‘soup,’ I was amazed when later that evening and even late at night, the house was still empty. Normally, every Friday evening Mevrouw van Sassen made the soup for the following day. Without that aroma pervading the house, I could scarcely believe it was Friday night. I even went upstairs to check whether Geert was really gone.
I knocked loudly on the wood next to the copper nameplate, but there was no answer. I noticed that in the hallway outside his door, there were six big grey trash bags, all very full. Strange, I thought. In our neighborhood the pickup was not until Tuesday.
        The next day, again the house was empty all morning. At one-thirty when I knocked on Mevrouw van Sassen’s door, I had given up trying to figure it out.
        The door opened and there stood Anny. She was holding a pan of pea soup.
        ‘Come on in,’ she said. ‘The soup’s ready.’
        I slowly opened the door. The four soup plates were in their usual position, but there was nobody else in the room. Anny set the pan down on the tea warmer; the candle was already lit.
        ‘It’s not home-made,’ she said. ‘Just a can of Unox.’
        ‘Well, that’s fine, it’s the best brand! But are we the only ones? Where is everybody?’
        She said nothing, but filled two of the plates with soup. She had already put on a plate with square slices of white grocery-store bread on it: this time no home-fried cubes.
        ‘Go ahead, bon appetit!’ she said. She sat down opposite me and began to eat with an odd slowness, clearly ill at ease. She looked back and forth at the two empty plates.
        ‘Hal,’ she began, ‘There’s something I have to tell you. This past Wednesday night, after you and I got back from The Hague, Mevrouw van Sassen had a heart attack. She died early the next morning.’
        ‘Anny!’ Before I could help myself, I reached across the table and took hold of her wrist. She immediately retracted her hand and went on: ‘It’s not a pleasant subject, but there it is, and I’ve been thinking about it constantly for the past three days and nights, so I would appreciate it if right now you and I could just sort of keep it short, okay?’ I nodded.
        ‘And now Hal, the thing is – this house is actually my property. We’ve always treated Mevrouw van Sassen as a landlady, and in a psychological sense maybe she’s been that, but actually I bought this house years ago; otherwise she would have had to move out because she couldn’t pay for all the upkeep.
        ‘But the way it is now, with her being – gone, I think it’ll be the best thing if you move to another address. You and I have always been like friends, so I don’t imagine you’ll have any problem agreeing with me on that. And actually, I’ve already made some inquiries and I’ve found a nice room in Oegstgeest that you could move into if you want. It’s not expensive; we can talk about that.’
        Chewing on a piece of dry bread, I said: ‘And what about Geert?’
       Staring at a spoonful of piping-hot soup, she blew on it twice and then said: ‘Mijnheer Cornelisse is at another location right now. He won’t be back at least for a while. I’ve already done some cleaning upstairs, in his rooms. I found a letter on his desk addressed to you.’ From the table she picked up a white envelope addressed to ‘Mr. H. Lofthouse’ and gave it to me. Something besides paper was enclosed in it, a key or medal, I thought.
        ‘I’ll open it later.’
        ‘Fine.’
        ‘Anny – can I ask you where Geert is?’
        ‘I’m sure Mijnheer Cornelisse will tell you about that himself. But you might have to wait a while.’
        Sobeit. She wasn’t going to tell me. Deciding there was also no point in asking her why she had still put on four plates as usual, I said I would be glad to move to Oegstgeest. When I asked about Mevrouw van Sassen’s funeral, she said only family were invited.
        I ate two and a half plates of soup and a lot of dry bread, knowing this was the last time I would ever experience Soup Day in The Indies. When we were finished, I washed up our plates and put them, together with the two unused ones, back in the kitchen cupboard next to the familiar rusty tea canister and the revered copy of the 1934 Batavia edition of the Keijner Cookbook whose worn-out back had long since been replaced with yellowing strips of cellophane tape.
I went back to my own room and opened the envelope. As I had thought, there was a key inside. I folded the letter open and read:

Hal,

I hereby invite you to join the Shipbuilders Collaborative. You are a ‘natural’ for membership in this Order; that was made clear to me during your visit by certain unmistakable indications. I need hardly add that as a member, you will not exactly have an easy time of it. As I said to you that evening: life is war. And that is all the more true for those willing to dedicate their lives to the winning of that war. But you will do better to avoid all talk of our ‘war’ in the presence of the worldly-wise who so vastly outnumber us.
        The Constitution of the Order, together with a written statement of acceptance which you can sign and then immediately burn, can be found in my room on a small sheet of paper, folded up inside the foremost main battery turret of the battlecruiser. Loosen the turret top with a screwdriver and you will find it inside. The contents will not surprise or trouble you. It all comes down to: ever and always seek to be instrumental. Actually you already know, but you still do not know that you know, and in the difficult process of making the implicit explicit – which unbeknown to the world, is the role and purpose of humankind – you will find the Order of great help.
The first assignment is: draw a circle. Inevitably, this will take you long years of effort. Keep courage. Take comfort in the thought of the many who have undertaken this Voyage before you. It goes without saying that you can count on my continual support, though you may as yet find this difficult to imagine.
        Further indications will reach you in their own time by such channels as are always available to such as ourselves. It will always be your own choice as to whether you, as a full-fledged Builder from now on, wish to follow them.
        It is contrary to the spirit of our Order even to speak of our existence in the presence of the uninitiated. But I am sure you will not find it difficult to honor this precept.
        Farewell, and at the same time: welcome aboard!

Geert

My heart was pounding and my head swam. My impulse was to rush upstairs and look for the Constitution of the Order, but something told me I needed to wait until Anny was away. It was now Saturday afternoon. Anny always spent the whole weekend at home. I would have to wait for two days...I walked into town and bought bread, cheese, apples and jenever. Once back in The Indies, I shut myself up in my room and spent the weekend memorizing each jot and tittle of the mimeographed Leiden classic Outline of Japanese Grammar by Frits Vos.
        Monday morning, once Anny left for work, I went up to Geert’s floor and let myself in. I saw at once that many of the things I remembered were gone: the paintings, the drawing of Design 1047, all the drawings on the table. I proceeded at once to the ‘harbor,’ rolled back the tarpaulin, and – the battlecruiser was gone! The Kortenaer was still in place on the windowsill; likewise the passenger ship on the mantel and the schooner on the secretaire. I searched the whole place, including the tiny bedroom at the back. I spent an hour looking, but the battlecruiser was gone.
When I had once again locked the door behind me, I had an impulse to open and search the trash bags that were still standing in the hall. But something kept me from even touching them; besides, it seemed unthinkable that anyone would leave the rest of the models in place but throw away the magnificent battlecruiser.
        That evening, I went to talk to Anny, supposedly to turn in the key to Geert’s room. I said that in his letter, he had asked me to touch up a detail of the battlecruiser, and asked her if she knew what had happened to it.
        Smiling impeccably, she stood there in wan silence till I nodded and said goodbye.

In less than a week, I had moved to Oegstgeest. The way from my new room to the Sinological Institute did not pass by The Way Back, and before long I had lost contact with The Indies. I did keep up the habit – to be honest, to this day I have never stopped – of opening a can of soup every Saturday noon.
        I have always kept Geert’s letter. Not that I’ve really done anything with it, except that a few times in all these years, I actually have sat down and tried, more as a joke than anything else, to draw an acceptable circle. He had warned me it would be difficult, and it is.
        Once, much later, I did go back to The Indies on an impulse, ten or twelve years after I had moved away. It was on a Saturday morning, one of those splendid breakthrough days in early April when even in Holland’s northerly clime, it finally becomes possible to believe that summer is on its way again, that light and warmth still exist and shall return to this world. I had an appointment that morning at a house on the other side of The Way Back, but maybe the sudden return of comfort and sun made me nostalgic, or maybe it was the sight of dappled waves on the water that reminded me of the Mississippi. In any case, I made a sudden detour to The Indies.
        First I looked in through the window on the ground floor where I had lived. I recognized some of the furniture that now filled the room; it had been Geert’s. But I sensed the place was uninhabited, and that the furniture was only there to discourage would-be squatters. I walked on to the window of what had been Mevrouw van Sassen’s sitting room, where on so many Saturdays we had shared soup and bread. Here, nothing seemed to have changed. In all the intervening years, not one framed photo, not one chinoiserie vase had been removed. In the basket on the floor in front of the easy chair, there was still the familiar-looking pile of women’s magazines and Judge Dee mystery novels.
        It took me a while to realize that one thing was new. At the back, in the corner atop the television set, half camouflaged by the dull brownish wallpaper behind it, was a grey ship model: a heavy warship with two stacks and three big gun turrets. Other than that, all things were as they had always been, including the four soup plates, white with bright red rims, gleaming on the table in the sun.

Heavy Ships (story; Part 2 of 3)


(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異 by Lloyd Haft)


A couple of days later, I suppose it was around five o’clock, while the late afternoon light still lingered above The Way Back, Geert knocked on my door: ‘Hal, how about coming up to my place for a paitje?’
        He saw my incomprehension: ‘I’m just kidding you, I knew you wouldn’t understand that. Pait – that means “bitter” in Malay. A “paitje” is a shot of hard liquor. A glass of jenever.’
        I was thrilled. I had never seen his legendary rooms. We went upstairs, he let me in through the door with the copper name plate – and instantly I had the sense of being in an environment that was long since familiar. Just as I had done as a boy, he had laid out model ships at strategic points in the room: on the windowsill a destroyer, on top of the closed secretaire a three-masted schooner in full sail, on the mantelpiece a beautiful passenger steamer that must have been a yard long.
       Hanging on the wall above the mantel was a watercolor of a ship, but when I looked at it from closer by, it was not so much the form as the suggestion of a ship: the water looked realistic, but above it, where the hull should have been, dark and light blue lines crossed each other in a tonal counterpoint that looked almost three-dimensional. Still higher, the lines were taken up in a dizzying spiral that widened as it rose, seeming at the end to join and somehow support the very sky. All of this was criscrossed by thick white swaths: the boat deck, where the lifeboats hovered like crescent-shaped sun dapples on water. The overall effect was a sense of rising circles and ellipses, no longer specific parts of the ship but an autonomous system of light and motion, coherent yet suggesting larger proportions than were shown.
        ‘What a picture!’ I said, noticing that in the lower right corner it was signed in pencil: ‘Cornelisse.’
        ‘That’s the Oranje,’ he said: ‘the flagship of the Nederland Line.’
        ‘There’s a lot of movement in it.’
        ‘Well, there has to be! Movement’s what it’s all about. You’re not just a big dead hulk, you’re alive, you’re moving! And the movement is what you are!’
        Behind him on the other side of the room, a magnificent antique clock struck the quarter hour with a rich, long-resonating chime. He waited till the silence had returned and said: ‘But what do you want to drink? Do you drink jenever?’
        ‘You bet I do!’
        ‘I have a bottle of Extra Aged, is that allright?’
        ‘Fantastic!’
        Out of an antique wooden cabinet he took two small glasses and a green-glass bottle of Old Hartevelt: ‘Sit down, make yourself at home.’
        I sat down near the fireplace in a low-slung wooden chair with an adjustable slatted back rest, the kind that Hollanders in those days called a “smoking chair.” ‘I want to be near the Oranje,’ I said. ‘Do you do a lot of painting?’
        ‘Oh, I didn’t paint that. My brother did.’ He came to sit facing me on a Windsor chair, expertly keeping his overfull jenever glass from running over. ‘My brother, now there’s a guy who could paint!’
        Slowly, steadily he raised the glass, so full that the top surface of the liquid was higher than the surrounding rim, and drank to my health with one of the familiar Dutch formulas: ‘Proost!’
        Prosit,’ I said, using the German variant.
        ‘Hey, do me a favor,’ he said. ‘Just say proost. People of my generation – we don’t so much like Germans, don’t even like to hear their language. We had to hear a little too much of it in the 1940s. But how come you pronounce it that way, did you pick that up from your drinking buddies at the university? Do they still sing “ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit”?’
        ‘I don’t know, yeah, maybe I picked it up from some German song.’
        ‘Well, no matter. Proost hoor! – Anyway, I was telling you about my brother, that he was so good at painting. He was a genius at it. He could have gone all the way to the top with that. But he never got the chance. He was in our Navy; he served under Karel Doorman in the Combined Striking Force. Does that mean anything to you?’
        ‘Sort of. The Battle of the Java Sea, right?’
        ‘That’s right. Well, he was in that. And he didn’t come back. He was on the Kortenaer, that’s the one over there’ – he pointed to the destroyer by the window. ‘They never had a chance. Doorman had good men, but he just didn’t have the battlewagons, the heavy ships. The whole Japanese invasion fleet coming at him, and what did he have? A couple of light cruisers. Couple of destroyers. That’s all. They didn’t have a chance, and they knew it.’
        I looked again at the watercolor. Even from a slight distance, the whole image seemed transformed into nothing but the circles, the ellipses, the elements that went beyond the form of the ship.
        ‘ – but the damned thing is, if they’d just been able to wait a little longer, then they would have had bigger ships, bigger guns. Three new battlecruisers. Our government had already approved the plan – it was called Design 1047. It was approved in 1940. And if Doorman had had those ships – they were going to have eleven-inch guns! – then our old friend and buddy Admiral Nishimura would have got the hell beat out of him!’ He leaned over with both forearms on his knees, clamping his glass tight in his fist. His lips pursed grimly, he breathed heavily, staring at the carpet.
Ja – ’ he finally said in a quieter voice, ‘I know, at your age this stuff doesn’t mean so much to you. It was a different time, a different world. But that’s the whole point. I get so sick of hearing people say that “different world” is over and done with. It’s gone, bye-bye, and wasn’t it all sad but it’s over and we face today...But that’s the whole point; that “different world” ’ – and now again his tone was tense, bitter – ‘is anything but “over.” It can’t be over as long as it’s still not done – do you get what I’m saying? It’s not finished yet. Ready for a refill? Come here, give me your glass!’
        He picked up the bottle from the floor beside him and poured another round for us both. ‘Tja – oh, and while we’re at it, you smoke cigars, right?’ He stood up, walked over to the mantelpiece and handed me a small plain wooden box with a brand name burned into the wood: ‘This isn’t the best brand in the world, but I like them. They’re called Sumatra Miskleur, but I always call them Miskleun. Sumatra mis-kleun, can you understand that?’
        ‘I think so, yeah!’ I said and more or less faked a laugh. I wasn’t at all sure what it meant. Something like a pun on “odd colors” and “odd culls.” Something about the Sumatra wrapper leaf not being top-quality...
‘Well, my hat’s off to you,’ he said, ‘ the way you’ve mastered our language. It’s like you’d been speaking it all your life.’ He took out a cigar for himself and handed me a silver-plated butane lighter.
        From where I was sitting I could see, through the half-opened wide doors, a little way into the next room, presumably the bedroom. I took a couple of puffs on my cigar. The smoke veered off very quickly toward that unlit area behind the doors.
        Geert was sitting across from me. His cigar looked like a stick of incense giving off long, blue smoke trails that all moved rapidly toward the large dark area behind him.
        ‘There aren’t many foreigners that speak Dutch as well as you do,’ he was saying. ‘Hardly any. Even if they’ve been here for twenty – ’
There was no light on in the room behind him, but the longer I stared in that direction, the more I thought I saw a human figure standing there, just behind the doors.
        ‘ – a joke like mis-kleun; why, the average foreigner doesn’t even know – ’
        I was seeing a small, dark woman, holding a young child in her arms.
        ‘ – and all those so-called “modern” ways of learning languages, the méthode nature, it’s incredible people can take it seriously – ’
Suddenly the whole bottom part of my body was cold. It was as if I were up to my knees in very cold water that somehow filled the room, streaming in the direction of the darkness. I felt it so strongly that I actually looked down to be sure that objectively, there really was no water. At the same time, the back of my neck and head was uncomfortably hot, and very dry.
‘ – like when we’re talking about ships, you just know what I’m saying, I don’t have to keep translating – ’
        It was as if our cigars were giving off more and more smoke. The smoke trails came together above Geert’s head, joining in a single strong, fast stream in the same direction as the “water.”
        ‘ – expect you to know a Malay word like pait, but even the average Dutchman – ’
‘Geert! Sorry to interrupt, but look at all that smoke! Don’t you mind all that smoke getting into your bedroom?’
‘Hell, no! My wife used to say: tobacco is menjan to me, I can’t get enough of it! Menjan, that’s another Malay word. Incense. She’d say: I can’t get enough of it. And she’d even say: later, don’t forget to keep smoking for me. You’ll be doing it for me, I like the smoke!’ He bit his lip, turned away and looked at the stream of smoke. The cold feeling in my feet and lower legs was getting stronger by the second.
        Abruptly he turned back toward me, smiling now: ‘Do you want to go in there and take a look? Come on, I’ll show you my modest little harbor.’ And just while he was speaking, I again had the impression of a human figure behind the doors. This time it was a young blond man in a white sailor’s uniform. He was looking in my direction; I actually thought he saw me and began to smile.
‘Geert! Who is that?!’ I was shocked by the sound of my own voice: so tense and turbulent, so unlike the steady clarity of Geert’s voice, as if we were not just conversing in an ordinary room but in a hollow cave-like space that picked up our voices and amplified them, exaggerating their differences.
 ‘My brother,’ he said calmly. ‘Say, you’re just about the first person that could see right off it was a portrait! None of the things I do are “realistic.” Come on!’ He got up, walked over to the half-open doors, and stopped next to one of two small identical frames that hung on the wall, one on each side of the doors. Meanwhile I no longer saw the man in the sailor’s uniform.
‘Look,’ he said as I joined him; ‘this is my portrait of Hein. My brother.’ He pointed to the frame, which enclosed a black-and-white abstract, seemingly done in ink on rice paper or a similar material. It was like a further development, a simplified refinement of the circles and ellipses I had already seen on the Oranje. This time the visible shapes were fewer, but they seemed stronger, more decisively drawn in. And this time they were all broken, open, only partially enclosed by the frame, making their imaginary proportions all the wider.
        ‘So you made this one yourself,’ I said, trying to talk normally although I could have sworn the room was knee-deep in cold water.
        ‘Yes, it’s mine. Well, I got that idea of the circles from Hein; that was his own technique in his later things. But I’ve developed it, I’ve done other things with it.’
        ‘Yes, I can see that.’
        ‘And that’s the way it always is, ja? You get hold of something unfinished from somebody else, but then you work it out in your own way. And then there comes a time when your own version needs somebody else to take it on further, give it a future.’
        ‘On this one, the circles don’t close.’
        ‘But isn’t that right? Isn’t that the way it always is? There’s always a point where the form breaks off, but that’s because it’s in motion and the motion is so wide. The circle is always wider than it looks; that’s why you don’t see it as a circle. And look, that one over there – ’ he pointed to the even simpler drawing on the opposite side of the door – ‘that’s my wife. You see? It’s even simpler, but it also has more strength. It’s just a single line, a single curve – but what it’s doing is tremendous! See? She’s farther along, part of a much larger circle!’
       Coming to those last words, his voice quavered. I noticed that on both paintings, in the bottom right corner, in the place where you might expect a signature, there was a symbol: an intertwined anchor, carpenter’s square, and draughtsman’s compass.
        ‘That signature goes well with it,’ I said. ‘Does it have a meaning?’
        ‘Well, it’s not exactly a signature, it’s – okay, what the hell, it’s okay for me to tell you this. It’s actually the emblem of an organization. We call it the Shipbuilders Collaborative. It’s the idea that whatever you make, whatever you do, you’re not alone in doing it.’
        ‘A sort of draughtsman’s guild?’
        ‘Well, not just draughtsmen. The Collaborative is an offshoot of Freemasonry. I joined the Lodge when I was young; I was a Freemason. I’m saying: was. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against them; I think they do a lot of good in the world. But little by little I realized they were stuck on the form side of things. They didn’t really believe in what was behind it.
        ‘I have to admit, I learned a lot from them. Especially about drawing, design, what that really is. It’s not just about lines on paper, but the drawing itself, the activity of visualizing itself, what that builds – that’s the important thing.
‘Even just learning to draw a circle, a real one. It sounds simple, but it’ll take you till your forties, half a lifetime, just to do that. My brother used to say: if you can’t make a circle, you won’t make much of a man either.
        ‘He was working hard on it, young as he was. Maybe he sensed that he wasn’t going to have a lot of time in this world. But he woke up to it before I did: I mean the contacts, what we call the link – that you don’t need to get that formally via an organization. If you just work on it – it’ll come to you. If you stay loyal to the idea of it, if you just work on your drawing, on what you can visualize, then sooner or later you do get the insights, the flashes, the indications that you’re not alone.
        ‘So eventually, besides being Freemasons, we set up the Collaborative, my brother and I. But come on; I’ll show you the harbor!’
        He led me through the doors and turned a light on. Passing through the doors, I positively felt that I was stepping out of water onto land. In the room where I now found myself, there was much more light and the air was dryer, warmer. My legs felt warm now, though a cold draft was still coming out of the room we had just left.  
A big antique wardrobe partly hid the far wall. Next to it was a door with a bamboo curtain, evidently opening into a following room which I assumed was the bedroom. Along one of the side walls was a long table with several lamps, large sheets of paper, and drawing instruments. Hanging above the table was an enormous drawing of a ship, not framed but mounted on wood, labeled in block letters ‘Side View, Battlecruiser 1047.’
       Over the whole breadth of the room along the opposite wall, there was a low wooden platform with dark-painted walls, more than a yard wide and half a yard high, its top covered by a blue-green tarpaulin hooked to the four corners.
        ‘Wait a second,’ said Geert; ‘I’ll take the tarp off’ – and at the sound of his voice, I was plunged without warning into an inexplicable feeling of guilt, shame, and failure. His voice, more than the actual words, was somehow a signal reminding me of something horrible, something vile and unforgivable, that I myself had somehow just done. He was speaking to me out of a warmer, dryer, better-lit area than the one I had just left, filled with clearer, more distinguishable forms. Somehow I had done something wrong, almost positively evil by seeing a woman and a man in what were only colored shapes on thin paper, and by thinking I was wading in cold water where no water could have been.
       Apparently reasonless as it was, the sensation of guilt was not entirely beyond my understanding. Anny had once told me that children who suddenly lose their father often interpret their tragic loss as meaning that they themselves must have done something unforgivable: that their father is now punishing them by never returning. As to why that guilt should have been accompanied by such a convincing illusion that I was standing in water, I could not explain it, nor have I ever understood it in all the years since then.
In any case, I must have been possessed, momentarily dislocated by a recurrence of that childlike mental state and its logic. Otherwise it is inconceivable that just at the moment when Geurt took hold of two corners of the tarpaulin and started to remove it, revealing that the wooden structure was filled with water, I was entirely convinced that I was going to see my father lying under it. The irresistible uprush of boyish joy that I felt at the sudden sight of water, piers, tugboats, and intricately modeled harbor equipment – brought with it the equally irresistible certainty of grief: my father is dead, my father has been lying under water and I have never looked under it for him, never seen him, never gotten him out again.
        I knew that I was experiencing his death as bedrock reality for the first time. In a flash I also realized that it was not just a matter of this colorless water under this blue-green tarpaulin, but of all the water, all the colors, all the things that I would ever see in my life. My father would be there beneath them all.
Meanwhile the whole tarp had been rolled back. The tub under it was filled several inches deep with water. Floating in it were all sorts of intriguing maritime models, but the center of attention was the big grey warship with two stacks and large guns in three turrets. Thanks to the drawing on the wall, I recognized it at once as a Dutch battlecruiser.
        ‘Just a minute,’ said Geert; ‘I’ll turn on the transmitter and we can take her for a run.’
        Why had I come to Europe? That was also a passage over water.
        ‘ – can really get up some speed, but here indoors it’s just to give you an idea of it – ’
        Why had I studied Chinese and Japanese? In another sense that, too, was a sea voyage: to the ends of the earth.
        ‘ – get up to full speed.’ The ship was moving. ‘The main armament turrets can turn, too, watch...’
        Had I become an Orientalist to find my father? – my father, who had been sent to serve and die in the Orient, who had seen it but not been able to live in what he saw, in whom the Orient must have awakened some larger-than-life question that he had never had time to answer. I would never know what his question had been, but I had come across the ocean to find an answer.
 ‘ – try it yourself? Look, you just turn this – ’
        Geert handed me the transmitter and we watched while I manouevred the battlecruiser.
        ‘I see it’s a battlecruiser,’ I said.
        ‘Yes, it’s one of the three. Design 1047. Back in the 1940s they made some drawings of it. I found them in a magazine, the Marineblad, and then I worked it all out. I was the one that made a real ship out of it.’
        I watched as the ship made little waves in the shallow water, moving with a purring sound.
        ‘Now, that’s a perfect example of how it works,’ he said. ‘Our design was based on a German ship, the Gneisenau. Sure, there were differences: the Germans had a different conception of the engines; our ships had to be suitable for tropical waters and so on, but basically it was a Gneisenau. But the Gneisenau didn’t just drop down from the sky. She was based on an earlier ship: the Mackensen, just like the Bismarck was actually based on the Baden. Like I always say: nothing comes out of nothing. It’s all been through a human brain before us.
‘And a drawing, a conception – it doesn’t just lie there. If it’s really been worked on, thought on. And you’ll never know what becomes of it later, or for whom. Here was this young German boy, and one day he made a drawing of the Mackensen. All sorts of things came up, and it turned out the ship itself was never finished. But the Gneisenau was. And via Design 1047, right now you’re holding this transmitter in your hand. The ship itself, whether or not it ever gets to sea – that’s not the point. It’s the idea: that you believe in your own conception, that it’s not just a lifeless thing.
‘Or take another example. My brother gets the idea of a Collaborative. I work on that, I make a drawing based on it. And thirty years later, you look at the drawing and you can still see it’s him! You saw it before I told you. Isn’t that beautiful?’
Meanwhile he had resumed command and returned the ship to its berth.
‘Do you want to see the drawings?’
        We walked over to the long table. He turned on the lights above it, shoved an ashtray closer to me, and began sifting through the pile of paper.
        ‘The original plan was for three battlecruisers. I’ve already finished the first one. What I’ve learned from that, I can use on the second and third. Look, this is a sort of “artist’s conception” of the second one.’
He handed me a large white sheet with only a single short curved line on it. It reminded me of the “portrait” of his wife, but this time the line was even shorter, the curve more obviously a mere section of a much larger whole. It was hard to believe Geert took this seriously as a “drawing”; yet I could not deny that the proportions, the rhythmic division of labor between the line and the space around it, could not have been more perfect. The placement of the line in its field showed the same mastery as the positioning of a single stone in a Zen garden. I remembered a quote, I thought from Mondriaan: Once you know a single point with certainty, then you’ve also got the whole painting it will become a part of.
 ‘Look, and this is the propulsion system,’ he said, handing me the next sheet. ‘Two engine sets, so there are two stacks.’ What I actually saw were two overlapping ellipses, one drawn in more forcefully than the other. Neither was mathematically quite correct, but the very distortion somehow made the four foci even more clearly present. Again I would have hesitated to call it a “drawing,” but again it was perfect.
        ‘It may seem a little abstract,’ he said, ‘but if you get this part of it right, at this stage, then all the rest fills itself in. The later things, the decks, the armor – any dumb idiot can draw those. But I’m the only person in this country who’s really working on the cutting edge, right here on this table. That’s why it’s so important to me. And when my job’s done, I can finally go back to Batavia.’
        ‘You always call it Batavia, never Jakarta. Aren’t those the same? I never took Dutch history in school; I’m still kind of vague on those things – ’
No sooner had I said the words than I regretted it: Geert’s whole personality was instantly changed, even his body. His back was a slab of concrete, slightly curved but immovable. He was holding his cigar a few inches in front of his face with the ash pointing upward, looking at it attentively while he turned it back and forth in his fingers.
When he spoke, it was in a tone of pure acrimony: ‘Hal, I didn’t even hear what you just said, that name. I didn’t even hear it.
‘But that’s not your fault. It’s this day and age that’s at fault. You say you’re “vague on those things,” but that’s not you, it’s this day and age. This generation is “vague,” the whole damned Kingdom of the Netherlands is vague! ‘And if only people had been less “vague” back then, I can tell you a whole lot of things would have worked out different!    
        ‘Nowadays God damn it, we’re not even supposed to say “Batavia”; we’re supposed to call it by another name because that bunch of “long-haired warriors” think it sounds better, in that so-called new national language of theirs that actually was all worked out by a couple of Dutch boys in Leiden, right here at the university – I’ll tell you about that sometime; that really is what happened! Even that, they couldn’t do without us. Without our help, they wouldn’t have even known how to put together a decent language!
‘No sir, the correct word for Batavia is Batavia! And Vier – I mean Mevrouw van Sassen, that’s her name – Vier always gets her dander up when I start telling the truth about those things, but you just have to realize, she doesn’t know. That’s her way to survive. Just deny it. Just say it’s not really like that.
        ‘The last time I ever saw my brother, we knew he was going to sea, and he had a premonition. I said: Hein old buddy, see you soon. And he said: Where’s that going to be, in Heaven? And I said: No, it’s going to be right here, in Batavia, mark my words. That’s how sure I was; I said: mark my words.
        ‘So the place where we’re going to see each other again, that stays Batavia. By definition, that can’t be changed. And that bunch of bastards that are in power over there now, whatever they do or don’t do can’t affect me! That’s nothing but the passing show; it doesn’t amount to a pile of crap.
        ‘But there’s no way you’re going to tell Vier that. Because she survived; she got through it, it’s not her problem, ja? And she’s just going to keep on keeping on; the Virtuous Widow, helping other people, taking care of the ones that do have problems. She’s a real caregiver type, you know – she was a nurse in the war; she even saved the life of some German guy. She may not want to tell you that story. But okay, so now she’s playing the nurse for me. And for Anny. She’s the Good Caregiver – but actually we’re the ones taking care of her! She needs us. Otherwise I would have gone back to Batavia long ago.
        ‘And you know, Anny – she’s a real special kind of girl. Beautiful, nice, smart. But letting it all go, unattachment – that’s what she’s still got to learn. She had that one big shock in her life; I guess she was around twenty, when that guy just fell over dead from one day to the next – and since then, basically she’s never gone out again. Ja, if I’d been younger, my hat would have been in the ring for her! But I always thought: she needs a man that’s in the same league with her, not a damned has-been like me! But okay, I’ve talked enough. How about let’s go out and get something to eat?’
        We went to one of the so-called ‘Chinese and East Indian’ restaurants and ordered a rijsttafel: a dozen various dishes with a big bowl of rice. As I tasted each dish, Geert told me exactly why it wasn’t made authentically. We drank round after round of Heineken, which he taught me to call Star Brand – Tjap Bintang – and by the time we walked home, it was not clear who was helping whom to walk straight.

[to be continued]