Dutch writer Tim Krabbé’s noir novel The Cave explores a choice and the unwitting corruption that follows from it. The most peculiar feature of Sam Garrett’s English translation is that it accidentally exemplifies the kind of corruption Krabbé explores, but on a stylistic level. The weak passages of Garrett’s text are sins of obedience where the closest rendering to Dutch no longer works in English—though at some point in the linked history of the two languages, it might have. That’s precisely the sort of shortfall Krabbé warns against in The Cave: the ease of being influenced, of losing track of one’s fundamental responsibility. The Dutch text in its English version mirrors the novel's preoccupation with small failings.
I started The Cave anticipating its translation into English by the acclaimed Garrett, who’s been praised for his translations of The Dinner by Hermann Koch, Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, and Little Caesar by Tommy Wieringa. Dutch is the closest major language to English. You can read their shared Germanic roots in Old English, the group of languages brought in by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from what is now The Netherlands, Friesland and Denmark after the Romans gave up Britain in 410 AD. While the Norman conquest of 1066 made for the most profound change in English—it picked up a host of French cognates—even Middle and Elizabethan English are easier to read if you know Dutch; its semantic permissiveness and archaic spelling remain beautifully intact.
The temptation that Krabbé’s protagonist faces is built up with a subtlety of craft and a philosophic depth unusual for noir. Egon Wagter, the novel’s unassuming geologist hero, has crossed the border into a tiny, made-up southeast Asian country—Ratanak—in order to sell five million dollars worth of heroin on behalf of the camp bunkmate of his youth, now Dutch drug lord Axel van de Graaf. The danger of being caught and put to death for the crime is foremost in Egon’s mind. The first chapter begins in media res and is filled with danger, complicity and temptation, but the moment from which noir draws much of its appeal, the moment of truth, took place almost thirty years before. Krabbé plays chess: he knows how to undercut a stock opening. When Egon's capitulation is revealed at the end, the reader remembers moments in the first sequence when Egon might have escaped and recovered the life he should have had; but he doesn't, because he doesn't see it. On the first pass the reader is in the same position as Egon: distracted by his alienation and the seriousness of the transgression. Krabbé suggests the right thing to do sometimes depends upon where you think you are in the story, and at the beginning Egon fails to decide.
Garrett falters obediently translating what Axel, the friend and corruptor, says about Egon’s mistake. Egon confronts Axel and his defense calls up Krabbé’s rethinking of responsibility. Axel takes advantage of complicit dispositions, the unconsidered edge of responsibility: “That tree over there. It won’t fall down if I push it. Maybe another tree would. So I can’t say ‘that tree fell because I pushed it’. It has to be ready to fall [...] You did it, so you wanted to.” Axel says he wants Egon—his witness and "chickenshit" counterpart—to remember that it was he who “always came up with the sweet babes.” He is referring to Vera and Florrie, two sisters playing at precocity who end up sleeping with Egon and Axel in the same tent the evening Egon meets the love of his life and is drawn away from her into the fate that ends with him dead on the pavement in Ratanak. Here Garrett’s disposition for complicity with the original text has made for a translation that doesn't hit the mark. Garrett makes Axel sound like a sinister Fonz. As the totem of wealth, infamy, and nihilism, Axel describes more than his own behavior when he says “I help people make their mistakes, but they make them themselves.”
The Cave is a complex and multi-faceted novel. It takes us from the slums and clubs of Ratanak to the dictatorial gardens; from Amsterdam basement parties to the streets of rural Massachusetts. Garrett’s translation is a good one with conspicuous little failures whose relationship to the temptation theme draws attention away from a deeper and more compelling issue. Krabbé's protagonist becomes a geologist because of a pivotal afternoon spent skipping stones and building a dam on the river Ourthe with the girl he likes, Marjoke. They joke and get to know one another, gently apologetic about the things they don’t have in common. They’re taken to the cave of the title to see a geologic formation called a Window, where bedrock formed millions of years apart meet. For Egon and Marjoke stone comes to represent an essential, transcendent reality. If you hear an echo of Plato’s Allegory of The Cave from The Republic here, you’re not alone. The opposition between the real, outside world of forms and the illusions of worldly life in the cave is turned on its head. The sacrifices both characters make to remain focused on geology gives the scene a second undertone from philosophy. As if rehearsing Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus in miniature, the stones Egon replaces when they roll off the dam stand for a meaning that both commit to, though they fail to commit to each other.
But ultimately Egon and Marjoke delude themselves, accepting the commitments that come their way half-heartedly. Marjoke’s family moves to Waterhead, Massachuetts, where she grows up and gets pregnant as a teenager, hoping that what she’s not ready for will do her good. Marjoke then hides from her loveless marriage and her husband’s long-term affair by starting a store that sells rock specimens, into which she sinks all her savings. When money runs out she contacts Axel van de Graaf for an opportunity to make enough for a geologic expedition to South America to see another Window; the same expedition that tempts Egon to contact Axel. Then Marjoke visits her children to say goodbye and disappears. In the way the lives of his characters play out, Krabbé asks discomfiting questions about the value of an infatuation with the eternal and the transcendent that privileges the past but discounts the rest of one’s life. For Marjoke and Egon, the meaning they come to associate with stone is the most important thing, worth everything; but what if a symbol obscures what’s directly in front of you?
There’s a complimentary image of water that recurs throughout the novel. “It’s not very nice for a river if it never gets to the sea itself. If it only goes along with another river,” Egon and Marjoke joke the day they meet. In the novel stone comes to represent the appeal of ideas—but ideas can also influence in sinister ways. By contrasting stone and water Krabbé suggests an alternative to flawed influences and discrete ideas you can hold in your hand: water represents flux, immersion, and mutability. Garrett’s translation has both sets of qualities. It’s weakest when most obdurately close to Dutch, strongest when it’s most transparent, fluent. Ultimately both images are models for thinking not intended to provide the thinking itself. Krabbé's noir performs a Socratic elenchus, a talking cure for borrowed ideas. He warns us of what we're responsible for and what we're complicit in. We are prompted to decide for ourselves.
Frysk, the Friesian dialect of Dutch, is even closer to English. Refer to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Central_Europe_5th_Century.jpg for a map of 5th century Europe.
Perhaps recognizable in wassail, a contraction of waes hael, where hael survives in the phrase “hale and hearty”.