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A puzzle with time. Richard Osinga's cruel but also loving new novel 'Coin'

Some writers are at the forefront, others write their novels in the lee. Richard Osinga (51) belongs to the latter category. With each book, he gains eloquence. Mint is the new shoot on the stem of his increasingly interesting oeuvre.

That lee was Richard Osinga himself, incidentally, a little too lee at one point. After his novel Devil with a soul (2011) came out and basically disappeared into a black hole - "it didn't do anything at all" - he wondered if he shouldn't just give up on it. "If you really wrote entirely just for yourself, you wouldn't need to publish it either, right? I also wanted to be read."

After a break, it started itching again. "I don't really know why I write," confesses Osinga, "but I do know that I can't stop. I have so many ideas that make me think: this is a great story."

Perhaps this 'reboot', as he calls it, had more at stake than before, perhaps his writing needed that rest to mature further - in any case, his writing took off after that. Those who seek the righteous(2019) made the longlist for the Boekenbon Literature Prize and his previous novel Arc (2021) was met with four-star reviews.

Old coin

Thank goodness, then, that Osinga has not put his pen away for good. Because his new novel Mint may be there. Three lives of very different people intersect when they come into contact with an ancient coin.

East Congolese Plamedi is the finder of the coin and hopes to use it to escape his traumatic past. Xiao Wei, a Chinese young man who trades valuable metals on behalf of his uncle in Congo, gets the chance to buy this coin. Wanting nothing more than to return to his beloved, he sees in the coin his ticket back home.

And then there is Eva, a Dutch scientist, who takes a job at Ghent University after a broken relationship. An archaeological expedition takes her to the site of the coin. What she finds there exceeds her wildest expectations, to put it cryptically - as does that of the reader.

Exciting novel

The result is a well-composed, exciting and brutal but also loving novel about fundamental questions: what really matters in life? How do events and time relate to each other? Does life really happen in a linear way, i.e. from point A to point B, as we think in the West? To what extent is the past ever really over? And is our thinking about progress really that beatific?

By playing with the chronology of the chapters, form and content interlock nicely. "I wanted to create a puzzle with time," Osinga explains. "So it started with the form. I came up with archaeology, a science that is all about placing objects in time. I also thought of a place where time does not matter, for example in nature, where all days are the same. So I ended up with the Ephe, a pygmy people of hunter-gatherers in the Ituri rainforest. And I looked for a constant in the story that could serve as a handhold for the reader: the coin."

Wandering

 How did those separate building blocks lead to such a layered story?

"I put my characters in a certain situation to see: what does he do? Xiao Wei is in Congo, his girlfriend is far away in China and he feels she is eluding him. At the same time, he finds it hard to just quit and go against his family's wishes. He is torn between duty and what he actually wants from life. Coin represents a way out of that situation for him. This is actually true for all three of my main characters. They are looking for something that gives life meaning, and they think they find it outside themselves. They find themselves on a wrong track.

I start with such an idea, but I don't work it out too far in advance. Nor the characters. I let them interact in the first few chapters, that's how I get to know them. At some point it feels like they are taking over the reigns. Look, in the end I also know that I am making everything up, it comes out of my head. But I am sometimes really surprised by what they say or do. As if I am a spectator. For example, with Yu, a Chinese colleague of Xiao's, it always felt like what he said came from somewhere else."

Research

 You are not an archaeologist yourself. Did you have to do a lot of research?

"Yes, and I liked that too. The archaeological research that plays a part in my book is loosely based on existing research. I contacted the leader of that research to have certain details I had come up with reviewed: if I let this and that happen, would it be credible? No coin from Ethiopia has ever been found in eastern Congo, but of course I wanted it to be possible.

Among other things, I discovered that in certain prehistoric finds of rich graves, remains of people had been found with certain deformities. I found that an interesting fact. There is also evidence of this among various Congolese peoples, as well as the existence of kingships where a king lived separated from his people. I incorporated both into my novel.

I was still planning to go to eastern Congo myself, but in the end that didn't happen. It is too unsafe there, with all those rebel movements. Recently, a number of Chinese were killed in the Central African Republic."

Other cultures

Your main characters are a Chinese, a Congolese and a woman. Was it difficult to put yourself in three perspectives that are so far away from you?

"I like the challenge of writing to try to empathise with it. However different the culture a person grows up in, I think its influence is limited. Inside, we are actually all the same.

What I actually struggled with the most is Eva's perspective. Her relationship is over; to start with a clean slate, she takes that job in Ghent and leaves her ex's daughter behind. In an earlier version, this Felice was not her stepdaughter, but her own daughter. Strangely, it didn't feel more believable to have a woman leave her child than a man - perhaps that's a result of the relatively traditional one I grew up with myself.

Making it a stepdaughter added an interesting aspect: that of the bond between stepchild and stepparent. Because what happens when the parents split up, is there anything left of the bond with the child that for the stepparent felt like his or her own child for a long time?"

Rebel movement

That good and evil have many faces is also a theme. As with the rebel movement Men of Water.

"The Men of Water is what is left when a revolution fails: then there are all lives disrupted, people who know nothing but war, child soldiers who have grown up and are looking for holdouts, for example from semi-religious movements. Those people do terrible things, and at the same time they themselves are just victims of history; from childhood they know nothing but violence."

Is it possible to escape this spiral of violence?

"There are those who manage to do that. Plamedi again to break free; fate catches up with him but does not break him. It doesn't end well for him, but he can let go of the past. People can experience such violent events, even as perpetrators, and still change. Not all spirals lead to the pit."

Language prodigy

I understood from your publisher that you are trying to read poetry in Chinese, Farsi and Arabic.

'That's right; I love learning languages. Besides languages in high school, I later added Italian, Spanish and Arabic. And for my book, I was learning Chinese, partly by watching Chinese television series. I also tried to learn Swahili, not Plamedi's mother tongue, but one of the languages he has mastered."

A busy job, a family with four daughters, writing novels and also learning all kinds of foreign languages: how do you do it?

Osinga laughs. "By filling the holes. Those Chinese series I watch while folding laundry. When I wait for the train, I learn words. And on the train, I read a lot. A matter of combining things well, I think that's the secret."

Richard Osinga, Mint (288 p.), World Library, €22.99.

About Richard Osinga

Richard Osinga (1971) worked as a diplomat for Foreign Affairs after studying economics and General Literature. He then entered the internet world. Twenty years ago, he made his debut with Bor in Africa, followed a year later by Clear language. After his fourth novel A devil with a soul (2011) remained quiet for a while, until he was released in 2019 Those who seek the righteous published, a novel-in-stories that was longlisted for the 2020 Boekenbon Literature Prize. Mint is Osinga's seventh novel.

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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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