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The child without a father became a father without a child. Auke Hulst wrote a novel about mourning an unborn child

It is perhaps his most ambitious novel to date, and at the same time the first he would really rather not talk about. In The Mitsukoshi Comfort Baby Company Indeed, author Auke Hulst (46) broaches a sensitive and personal theme: mourning for an unborn child.

Near future

 The Mitsukoshi Comfort Baby Company is a novel as only Auke Hulst writes. If only because the story is set in the near future, in a world similar to ours but in which history has turned out just a little differently. The novel's protagonist is science fiction writer Auke van der Hulst, who reflects on a short-lived but acrimonious relationship. His ex-girlfriend became unintentionally pregnant. After initially planning to go for it together, she changes her mind and has the foetus removed.

Even though he thinks it is entirely her decision, the narrator carries that with him for years to come. But in this future world, for people like him, there is Japan's Mitsukoshi Comfort Baby Company, where parents can order a child. A machine, but indistinguishable from real and complete with memories of a non-existent childhood. Auke is given a 7-year-old daughter to bring home, Scottie, to whom he becomes deeply attached. In the new autobiographical book he is writing, which is about that lost love affair and the loss of an unborn child, he has his protagonist Kaj travel back in time in an attempt to undo the events.

Two novels at once

A writer (Auke Hulst) writing a novel about a writer (Auke van der Hulst) writing a novel about a writer (Kaj) - The Mitsukoshi Comfort Baby Company is a novel with a droste effect and an ingenious structure. 'This was by far the most difficult book to make,' says Auke Hulst at his kitchen table. 'Because it is a book ín a book, I was actually writing two novels at the same time, which had to work on their own, but also in relation to each other. A technical challenge beyond anything I've done before. When it was finished, I was completely demolished. I also worked on it much longer than usual: three years. Although you could also say I worked on it for up to 12 years.'

Had you started working on it much earlier?

'Yes, it has been fermenting in my head for a long time. It contains paragraphs I wrote in 2010 or 2011. But back then I was not ready for it at all. I was scared of this book.'

Why?

'I went through this myself, a long time ago. My then girlfriend got pregnant and after a few months decided to have the child removed. I suffered a lot of grief from that for years. Although afterwards I was tempted to exonerate myself by pretending it had just all happened to me, I obviously had a part in the relationship going wrong myself. I explored that in this story. What I had never really thought about honestly, for example, was the question of the extent to which the way I grew up - a father who died young, a mother who was not there for us - was connected to how things went wrong in later relationships.

All my novels are a form of self-examination. The main character in this book is called Auke van der Hulst, by which I actually mean: it's me, but not quite, he is someone who is very much like me. I take one step away, creating space to draw from reality, but also to distort things. Fiction is like a test set-up in which you can put a certain subject on edge.'

Writer Auke Hulst: 'All my novels are a form of self-examination.' ©Marc Brester/A Quattro Mani

Mourning for an unborn child

You describe it very nicely in the novel: the child without a father became a father without a child.

'What has been there was, properly speaking, not really a person you can have a connection with yet. But instinctively, it doesn't work that way. When you think about becoming a father, you think about names and start thinking about a future as a parent. You already feel all sorts of things about that, emotional ties are already formed with something that is not there yet. In that sense, it's a bit like creating characters; they become very real in a way.

That things turned out differently caused a sense of grief. I was always having a weird two-way conversation in my head. The rational side said: it was not yet a child. But emotionally I did feel that way. I felt guilty, there was sadness and anger. These emotions could not be tamed by reason. Literature is the right place to explore clashing realities that can exist in one head. That as a man you can be very pro-choice, you can feel that it is really only a woman's decision, and that the result of that choice can nevertheless cause a lot of grief and guilt.'

Writer and musician Auke Hulst ©Mark Uyl

Mourning for an unborn child is not something that is often talked or written about, especially by men.

'That's right. Some time ago, I was with some friends I've known for about 15 years, when the subject happened to come up. And what transpired? Three more turned out to have had to deal with it, without us knowing about it from each other.'

Have you ever talked about it yourself?

'Very little. The first ten years because I just couldn't do it - then I started crying acutely. Later, I sometimes discussed it when I had a girlfriend, because then you can't avoid the subject of children. But I found that very difficult. And still do, although I can talk about it now.'

New insights

Yet that strong grief did not lead you to have children later on.

'Although the abortion was not my choice, I still felt I had forfeited my rights. Because deep down, I knew that with my behaviour and intransigence, I had engineered the situation. I had had my chance and squandered it. I now think differently about that.'

Did your self-examination lead to further insights?

'Yes. I dared to look in the mirror of my text and became more honest with myself about how difficult it is to live with a writer, how important my work actually is to me. The other has to settle for it. Moreover, writing is a vampiric activity: you use things from life that you have shared with others when they have not asked for them. I found it hard to admit that to myself because it is so ugly. Writers who find their work incredibly important irritate me. But that's because I'm like that myself.'

Science fiction

Such a sensitive subject in the form of science fiction - an unusual choice.

'The form of my novel is an ode to the literature that has helped me so much. Because I grew up in an insecure home situation, I used to be afraid of people, I didn't understand shit about them. That really made me an outcast. When I was 20, I couldn't have the kind of conversation we have now. I found support in books. Science fiction made me think about life and humans in a different, much deeper way than much other literature. It increased my understanding of the world.'

Auke van der Hulst makes his protagonist travel back in time so he can fix his mistakes. A longing that many people will recognise.

'Almost everyone, I think. Once, I broke my kneecap on the football pitch, because I thought I could get to the ball just a bit earlier than the goalkeeper. But it went right through me. A pain! Can time please go back a few minutes, I wished in my mind, so I can let the ball go and stay in one piece? I think a lot of people have something they would like to undo.'

In your 'test setup', that does not end well.

'No, because I don't think the idea that you would do it better next time is right. Kaj does do things differently the second and third time, but because there is already a basic flaw in the initial situation, it still manifests itself in a different way each time. Therefore, the dreamed outcome will never come. That knowledge helps to be at peace with how things have gone.'

Good to know Good to know

Auke Hulst, The Mitsukoshi Comfort Baby Company, 608 p., Ambo Anthos, €26.99

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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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