King of Tuzla, by Arnold Jansen op de Haar, is the tale of Tijmen Klein Gildekamp, a soldier with the UN sent on an aide mission to Bosnia. It describes Tijmen’s physical and psychological journey through the former Yugoslavia, as well as showing snippets of the lives of others who Tijmen and his comrades pass along the way. It is told with the silent, humble authority of an author who has firsthand knowledge and experience of the scenes he has chosen to describe.
The novel is divided into five sections. The first three sections have Tijmen as an active soldier, awaiting and then partaking in his duties. The final two serve as a reflection of his final months in Bosnia after his return to his homeland in the Netherlands.
In the first section Tijmen is with a reconnaissance team in Bosnia awaiting a definitive mission, and we are intriduced to the sitation on Bosnia. Not only are the feelings of frustration and concern of the soldiers displayed, but also we are given glimpses of the civilians of both sides of the conflicts, of how their lives have changed, in the first of what I have coined the digressions. In various points throughout the novel the author jumps from the main characters, Tijmen and the soldiers, to other characters, to the inhabitants affected by the war. Starting with Galib Prolaz the Yugoslav, throughout the novel we briefly glimpse the lives of Lucia, Jasmina, Vlado Duric, Lazar Zekic, Ejup Delalic, and Hadija Ibrahimovic, real people on both sides of the conflict; real experiences that are not sensationalised nor glorified. We are allowed a glimpse into how it felt to be a soldier and a civilian in that war.
In section two we are given an insight into Tijmen’s journey, and that of his fellow officers, before reaching Bosnia; their ambitions, dreams, ideals and values.
We return to Bosnia in section three where Tijmen and his men have been assigned a mission. Here we see the complexities of the relationships between the soldiers themselves and between the soldiers and civilians. We understand more the politics of army life, and we are presented the soldiers as ordinary men.
In sections four and five Tijmen reflects on the events of the last months of his mission. In section four, the author changes style, using diary extracts to show Tijmen’s experiences, which gives an added reality to the events, and which shows us more of Tijmen. The simplicity of the diary-extract style mixed with third person narrative combines well here. This is one of the best sections of the novel both in writing style and language quality.
The novel ends with a poetic reflection made by Tijmen, serving as a type of summary of his time in Bosnia. For those familiar with this author’s works, you will know that this is the title poem of his anthology Yugoslav Requiem . It is a beautiful end to the novel.
As stated above, the author himself was, like Tijmen, a soldier working for the UN based in Bosnia, and the familiarity of the soldier with the topic of his novel shows throughout. It allows us to see Tijmen and the other characters not only in their formal roles, but also as real individuals. It means that the novel steers away from the glory and the sensationalised action associated with war-related novels, to show the complexity of emotions; doubt, boredom, frustration, fear, joy, excitement, exhilaration, loyalty, pride, envy, even sexual attraction.
I would imagine that the language is more beautiful and effective in the Dutch original. If there was one main critique that I would make, it is the fact that at some places in the English translation may be awkward for some readers, leaving the need to reread a sentence, owing partly due to the author's highly unique style of writing.
This novel would serve not only those interested in stories of war but anyone who enjoys a good novel written in a unique style. The novel will also interest those who support independent publishers and new writers, and who are intrigued by the project of this book's publisher to unite Dutch and English literature. It is a good addition to European literature in general and an enjoyable read. Translation issues aside, I believe it will attract a number of fans, and I'm sure, like me, you'll be left itching to know what happens in the sequel, Engel (Angel).
I would like to thank Holland Park Press for allowing me to review this wonderful novel.