Rotterdam novels #1: ‘Karakter’
There are many novels set in Rotterdam. Each of them show another, new side of the city. For Rotterdam I Love You I will discuss some of these novels. Today the classic Karakter, written by Ferdinand Bordewijk and first published in 1938. This article may contain spoilers!
The name Karakter (in English: Character) will bring horror to the minds of some Dutch people. Ferdinand Bordewijk didn’t write an easy book – the opposite of that. It is a tough read with long sentences and barely any action. For high school students this is a nightmare come true, since some of them may have to read the book to pass their Dutch course. But Karakter is more than a tough read. The book displays a unique view of a city which is perished nowadays. Most of the story is set in Rotterdam, between the two World Wars, when the city suffered from the economical crisis in the 1930’s. Poverty and despair plagued the city. Life wasn’t easy in those days, especially when you weren’t born in the right surroundings, like the main protagonist.
Poor, poor boy
The main character is Jacob Willem Katadreuffe. He is raised in a poor environment by his single mother Jacoba Katadreuffe, a woman with a bad health who keeps ends together by sewing. Jacob doesn’t know his father Arend Dreverhaven, an notorious bailiff and the terror of the poor in Rotterdam. Obviously, the two are bound to meet each other which result in some interesting scenes. In this Bildungsroman, Jacob eventually gets a job at a law firm and although struggling, works his way up in his job and life in general. So far the synopsis. You will have to struggle through the novel yourself for the rest of the story.
Courtesy of the Nazis
Before the Nazis in 1940 (and by mistake the English in 1943) decided to bomb the city, Rotterdam had a lavish old city center descending from the 17th and 18th century. Nowadays there is hardly anything old and historical left in the city center. Jacob’s father Arend lived among the poor, for specific reasons. The poorer areas of the city were the working space of a bailiff. His office is situated in de Lange Baanstraat (now the Mariniersweg, a five-minute walk from the Markthal). We read about an eviction of a family in the Rubroekstraat in Crooswijk. A revolt has broken out. Snipers laying on rooftops, troops parading the streets and the neighborhood in lock down. But that isn’t going to stop Arend. He enters the Rubroekstraat, windows broken by bullets, roof tiles demolished on the streets and a silence suited for the cemetery. Afraid of nothing, Arend naturally does the job.
For people who know the city, many places and streets sound familiar. Some of those still exist today, like the 19th century Noordsingel courthouse (definitely worth a visit) where Jacob has to take care of some busines. Other places still exist, only not as was described in the book. The Korte Pannekoekstraat used to be a small alley where Arend owned some stores. A maze of gloomy streets, too narrow for any car, surrounded his stores. The bombing destroyed the area and today de Pannekoekstraat is an up and coming street, where you can order some fries while sipping on your gin and tonic. But many sites described in the book disappeared completely, like the airport at the Waalhaven, Rotterdam-Zuid. This small airport build in the 1920s was used by tourists as well as pilots in training until it, yet again, was destroyed by the Nazi’s.
The bombing is a recurring story in the history of Rotterdam. We can’t avoid it. That’s why Karakter is not to be missed for anyone who wants to know how the city looked just before the bombs fell. Have fun reading!
Archival photos of Rotterdam: Stadsarchief Rotterdam