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Bas van den Bosch: 'Even today, it is often said that men express their feelings poorly.'

Clamp is the touching story of 11-year-old Paul, whose mother dies just after he refuses to lie with her for a while and runs out of the room. This makes him think he is guilty of her death. Interview with author Bas van den Bosch about his second novel. We are raffling off three copies!

Bas van den Bosch. ©Ilja Keizer
Bas van den Bosch. ©Ilja Keizer


The concise novel Clamp has similarities with Septemberlight, the book with which Bas van den Bosch (1953) made his debut in 2009 and which was nominated for the Anton Wachter Prize. Where in Septemberlight the protagonist had lost his father at an early age, losing him in Clamp his mother much too soon. It is April 1962: society is still quite segregated, Paul is at a school with only boys in the class and his uncle Gerard, his father's brother, is returning from Africa as a missionary. Both society and Paul's life are about to change dramatically.

Paul and his father Jaap have to move on together after the death of mother Ria. Both are not talkers, and while father struggles so with his own feelings and does not know how to deal with his son, Paul is tormented by the thought that he is to blame for his mother's death. He dares not share his secret with anyone, not even the bridge guard he befriends, and bottles up all his feelings - literally. The intestinal blockage becomes so severe that he eventually even ends up in hospital. By chance, Paul discovers that things turn out to be very different from what he thinks (but we won't reveal the outcome).

Paul and his father Jaap have to learn to live with the loss of Ria, and the fact that their lives go on. To what extent are we defined by our past and are we able to live with it?

''You are what you have been through,'' you sometimes hear people say, and I suppose that is true. But you are also how you can deal with what you have been through. Of course, each person does that in his or her own way. At one point, Paul's father tells about Raphael Moses, a Jewish colleague who lost everything during the war. The father holds up to his son: "I just want to say, Paul, life goes on, our life goes on. Raphael literally lost everything in '45, but he went on with his life anyway and he was cheerful too. If he could be cheerful, we don't have to be at all.''

The power of love plays an important role in the story. Can love heal all wounds?

''Somewhere in the book, Paul is reminded by his father of the text, "Amor vincit omnia", love conquers all. The boy interprets this in his own way; he is afraid that his father already has a new lover a few months after his mother's death. But that doesn't make the words any less true: how great the power of love is, and how love and death relate to each other, is shown at the end, when it becomes clear that at his wife's deathbed the father "rose above himself", as his brother puts it.''

Van den Bosch _Clamp.indd

Paul can express his feelings so badly that it literally makes him sick. His father also has a poor ability to express himself. Was that typical of the time, do you think?

Even now it is often said that men express their feelings badly, but I dare say that in the 1960s this was even worse. I don't think the average man talked very much about what was bothering him, although I was still a child myself at the time and mostly heard about it. But now that I think about it, I don't remember ever seeing a father walking behind a pram in the 1960s; the role patterns were pretty fixed. So the fact that it was women who stirred emotions in Paul, I think, fits the times.''

What role does the bridge keeper play for Paul? What is his function for the story?

''The bridge keeper is a godsend for Paul: finally someone with whom he does not have to be on his guard. In this sense, the bridge keeper in this story acts as a kind of light touch in Paul's oppressive world. The bridge keeper's house is a safe place, where he can think about something else for a while.''

AQM Bosch illustration 2

The book exudes the atmosphere of the 1960s, a time when society was changing considerably. Why did you choose precisely this time as a background?

''The 1960s were still pretty bourgeois, but change was in the air. In those times, Paul fits: much in the big world around him is changing and, curious as he is, he is completely open to those changes. But, as Paul's uncle Gerard, pointing to a brand new television set, says somewhere, "The big world is just a little box, when you flip the switch, the show is over and you're right back home. And home is where it happens." In this book, the big world, which opens slowly, is the backdrop to Paul's small world, which closes at first but opens again at the end. Something else is that the 1960s also served me well for the plot of the story: anno now, the mother would probably have died in a different way.''

At the time, you were the same age as your character Paul. What do you yourself remember from that period?

''I well remember when we got a geyser at home and so suddenly hot water flowed from the tap. My father's first car - I think in '67 - was also a big event: the whole family ran into the street to welcome the Fiat. Like many other 'contemporaries', I also remember John Kennedy's death well. Silently I sat next to my father by the radio. Incidentally, the 1960s did not have such a big impact on me. I feel much more happened in the 1970s.''

AQM Bosch illustration 3

Clamp is your second novel. How did the writing process differ from your first book Septemberlight?

''There were almost six years between the first and second novels, but there were also periods when I was Clamp set aside, only to pick up the manuscript again after a few months (or sometimes even longer) and complete it further. In the meantime, I would then work on a new novel or short stories. Although Septemberlight is a thicker book, I talked about Clamp, a relatively "small" story, did take much longer. No doubt this had to do with the choice of child perspective, with which, vocabulary-wise and intellectually, I did not make it easy for myself. Many scenes were rewritten four or five times, but I actually liked that too. In the end, I worked on the creation of Clamp perhaps more fun than those of Septemberlight, probably so because of that craft of planing and sanding, I obviously like that.''

When you debuted, you were 56 years old. What role does writing play in your life?

''I am indeed a late debutant, but they have to be there too. Since my debut, I have come to regard writing stories as a job and I spend an average of about five hours a day at my desk. And I must say: I haven't had a better job so far.''

Bas van den Bosch - Clamp (192 p.), Atlas Contact, €21.99

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 9 April

'Don't, Paul, please don't.' My mother crosses her arms in front of her chest to fend me off, but I pull out and run away, colliding with my father at the door, sprinting into the corridor, turning a corner and ending up in the empty conversation room. Nowhere a curtain. Nowhere a deep cupboard. Nowhere even a sink to crawl under. Panting, I sink into a chair - he'll find me anyway - and then the waiting begins. Forty, sixty, a hundred; I count until I get confused and have to start again, but each time I lose count and start again. Then suddenly Dad is on the threshold, jacket creased, hair messed up. Very quietly he walks towards me and grabs my hands, squeezes my wrist: 'Don't be scared, kid...' I shake my head because I don't want to hear what's coming, but he takes a deep breath and then it comes anyway: 'Your mother died. Your mother has died and she is in heaven.'

At the edge of the ceiling is a leaky spot in the shape of a dagger that twists and ends in a sharp point. Next to it, a brown crack runs to a hanging lamp in the middle. Miss Martens claims the sky is the most beautiful place in the universe, but according to my father, she can exaggerate quite a bit.

He pulls me out of the chair, sensing my resistance, and bends down. 'You need not be afraid, we are not going to her.

Two nurses approach us in the corridor and interrupt their conversation. They don't look at me, him greeting them with a nod. Their eyes pierce my back. Up to the lift, our footsteps are the only sound in the corridor and even at the rooms with six patients, it is quiet. A brother lets us go ahead and bats his eyes. It's crazy: never before has my father called me 'kid'.

Only outside, crossing the street, he gives me a hand and on the tram home, he fidgets with his coat. He stares out of the window. Twice he looks down at me and the second time he keeps looking until I turn my face to the aisle. Sixteen legs. On the aisle are sixteen legs of eight people, four of whom get off before us.

At home, I immediately run upstairs to my room, but when I hear him talking on the phone in the corridor, I sneak to the stairs: step eight from the top, twelve from the bottom, he used to count them when he put me to bed. After the call, he presses his forehead against the wall and stays like that for a moment; his crown a bird's nest, mum's word.

He turns again: 'With Jaap. Don't worry, it's over. Ria has died.' After the fourth phone call, he disappears into the kitchen and drinks from the tap. Then he calls three more times and each call proceeds the same way: first he dials a number, then takes a deep breath and when it is answered, he keeps saying: 'It's Jaap. Don't worry, it's over. Ria has died.'

Nothing about what I did, nothing about heaven.

AQM Bosch illustration 1

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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