Libris prize goes to Alfred Birney’s novel on traumatised abusive father

Photo: Ingrid de Groot / HH

The 2017 Libris prize for best Dutch novel has been awarded to De tolk van Java (The interpreter of Java).  Novelist Alfred Birney (65) received a cheque for €50,000 and a bronze medal from the hands of acting culture minister Jet Bussemaker on Monday.

Birney’s autobiographical novel tells the story of his father who fought on the Dutch side during the Indonesian war of Independence (1945 – 1949) and the horrendous treatment he put his family through in later years.

Birney’s father Adolf Birney, Arto Noland in the book, was the unacknowledged son of an Indo-European father and a Chinese-Indonesian mother whose allegiance to the Dutch made him a traitor in Indonesian eyes.

Birney emigrated to the Netherlands shortly after the war and married a Dutch girl with whom he went on the have five children. Between his distant mother and his traumatised and violent father Alfred Birney’s childhood and that of his siblings was one of fear and humiliation.

Birney and his brothers and sisters were taken into care when he was 13 but his fascination with the roots of his father’s behaviour – did the war make him mad or was he mad to start with? – never left him.

In an interview with the Volkskrant Birney said he felt compelled to ‘get to the bottom of his father’s madness. I had to understand him.’

De tolk van Java is also a look at the history of the Dutch role in Indonesia. ‘Dutch history only really gets interesting from a colonial perspective but youngsters often have no idea about the link between the Netherlands and Indonesia because it’s not a subject we like to talk about.’, he told the Volkskrant.

But most of all Birney’s book is about his personal relationship with his father. In his book he writes ‘I fought his madness for a long time. Now I’m a tired bridge arching over a past without seeing its reflection in the water. I will no longer fight, it’s over.’

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