The Netherlands is commemorating the MH17 disaster this month. Two years on, the question of guilt is still not unequivocally answered. The protagonist of Pieter Waterdrinker's novel Poubelle has less trouble with that: who holds himself mostly responsible. A conversation with correspondent novelist Waterdrinker: on modern European history, the Russian mentality, Great Literature and the shit of contemporary Europe.
In a wild rollercoaster ride of 544 pages, it describes Poubelle (French for dustbin) the adventures of Wessel Stols. After a successful advertising career, he tries in vain to become a writer. Moreover, when he fails as a shady dealer in Soviet art and his marriage ends in childlessness, he ends up in the European Parliament through a friend. There he feasts on extravagant wealth, fame and sex. Yet history takes him back East - into the conflicts in Ukraine and Crimea. It becomes his undoing.
Pieter Waterdrinker has lived in Russia for 20 years and, as a correspondent, closely witnessed the uprising in Kiev, the annexation of Crimea and the MH17 disaster.
Which came first: Wessel Stols or history?
''That's complicated, an opaque process. You have writers who really think up a book, create an outline, a plot. That's not how I work. The faces came to mind, and the setting is in the war in Ukraine. I've been there myself, but like Wessel Stols, I also visit Europe regularly, Amsterdam, Paris. It is a swirl of impressions and experiences, and they connected. The events called to him, as it were.'
'Poubelle is timeless, even if it plays in a particular era. Take Lawyer of cocks by Adri van der Heijden; it is set in the 1980s at the time of the squatter riots, but it is also timeless. I found it perverse not to write about the events in Ukraine. It struck me as autobiographical; one of the few, while what is happening is SO important for the fate of the world and Europe.'
'But it is also a book with many storylines and themes from previous work of mine. I didn't choose non-fiction because you can't reach as high in it. It is a novel, the story of Wessel Stols. You have to read the actual history between the lines. Which is about contemporary Europe adrift, with terror, refugees and geopolitical events we can no longer ignore. Did you know that 31,000 NATO soldiers are currently exercising in the Baltic states? Here that all seems distant, but there it keeps everyone busy. The Russians are terrified of US trucks, wondering: what kind of game is the US playing?''
Van Baalen and Timmermans
Wessel Stols feels co-responsible for the war and thus for the MH17 disaster because, as an MEP in Maidan Square, he called on Ukrainians to join Europe. So did real MEPs, including Hans van Baalen and Guy Verhofstadt. Has Van Baalen called you yet?
''Van Baalen did not call me, no. Now I also have to say that most people take a long time to read 544 pages, the reactions from those around me are only just coming out now. That's weird though, many writers tour bookstores and get reactions immediately. I leave for Russia again after the publication of my book and hear nothing more. Sometimes I think: does this book of mine even exist? That's why I'm happy with social media, that way I can still hear what people think of it.'
'I hope for Poubelle a bit like Frans Timmermans. The latter has spoken in praise of my last three books on Facebook. I like Timmermans, am always amazed at the energy, the time he finds to read so much. I love that he bothered to post reviews of my work. The last time I saw him was at the embassy in Kiev. I can't imagine he didn't read this; he also played a part in this game, though Poubelle not a key novel.''
Bare, cold materialism
What does the West insufficiently understand?
''There is a huge ignorance in the West. We have a certain forward thinking that boils down to: they will become like us, or at least they should. A country like the Netherlands does not live in its history, Russia does. From our bare, chilly materialism and belief in progress, we get stuck in the barbed wire in Ukraine. What Russia does cannot be condoned, but if you try to understand it, you get some insight into how far apart the West and Russia are. In Moscow, everyone drives Western cars and people look just like us, but if you look inside their heads, they and we have a very different focus. According to fellow former correspondent Alexander Münninghoff is because of the schism of 1054, when the eastern and western churches split from each other. Russia did not experience a renaissance and enlightenment as a result.'
'I don't take a position, but I show all sides within the story of Wessel Stols' Werdegang. From that you can see for yourself that Russia is no good, but that Ukraine is no good either, and that Brussels is no good with its stupidity and hubris.''
Dutch journalists appeared to be activists
Not taking a stand is also taking a bit of a stand, isn't it?
''Yes. Especially after MH17, many Dutch journalists seemed more like activists! I want to distance myself from that polarisation, and the best way to do that is to write a panoramic book.''
Is Poubelle a Russian novel? Wessel Stols reminded me of novel characters like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, perishing from guilt, or Lermontov's Petsjorin, a superfluous man who ruins others out of boredom.
''That's not going to be conscious, but it's not strange either. I have lived in Russia for 20 years and I have been nurtured and raised by French and Russian 19th-century literature. My way of writing is narrative, Jeroen Vullings Called that in Vrij Nederland the "thumping tradition" of the great Russian writers. Emotions are always higher, deeper, more intense in Russia than in the Netherlands. The Russian temperament is similar to the Italian one. As a result, I am more emotional as a person myself. I am not a writer like the Dutch writers: controlled, understated. Not a "bald" writer.''
Wessel Stols fails as a writer; his former classmate Sander Brons fared better. He also begins an affair with Wessel's wife Friedl. What exactly is Brons' role?
''Yes, that's interesting. You can take his character literally, but you can also wonder if Sander Brons exists, if he is not the "better me" of Wessel Stols. All the opportunities Stols missed in life, Sander Brons fulfils. There is a passage where Wessel Stols returns to his wife for the first time after a long time and storms towards the wardrobe because he thinks Sander Brons is in it, but it is his own reflection. There is a clear Doppelgängermotiv. Sander Brons is also a writer, perhaps the author of this story. Perhaps we are reading the adventures of Wessel Stols directed by Sander Brons.''
There are many parallels in the book. For instance, Stols takes Soviet art from a demented elderly person, who sits in his own excrement in a Russian nursing home. Later, as a prisoner in a basement in eastern Ukraine, Stols himself is sitting in his own shit.
Pig's head in tailcoat
''Wessel Stols' ambition is greater than his talent, both in art and literature. He tries to compensate for that with sex and social status and so he ends up in politics. I see a lot of people getting into politics out of opportunism. But he doesn't give up art until the very end. When he gets thrown into that cellar, it doesn't just happen to Wessel Stols; the whole of Europe gets thrown into that cellar, into the shit of hypocrisy.'
'That is also what the title refers to: the whole life around Wessel Stols is a bin, the stench is lifted from contemporary Europe. See also the cover, a pig-headed man in tailcoat. A rebel in Kiev says to him: life is a dustbin, a poubelle. Brussels is a dustbin. And of course it also features the Parisian mayor Poubelle who invented the street dustbin, and of course the rebel leader in the book is called Poubelle, but the title is clear: everything is a stankbelt.''