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Helga Ruebsamen


Olijfje (Olive)

Category: Fiction | Published: 1989 | Review Added: 11-02-2019

Rating: 3 - Worth reading

Helga Ruebsamen was born to a German father and a Dutch mother in the Dutch East Indies. Her family was in the Netherlands when the Second World War broke out, and was unable to return home. Ruebsamen spent the rest of her life in the The Hague, where many of her stories are set.

Olijfje portrays the lives of two rootless people: an unnamed female narrator, and her bosom-friend Olive. They meet through a mutual acquaintance one dissolute Sunday afternoon that culminates in a painfully comical scene of lovemaking between Olive and her "keeper", a middle-aged German civil servant. Olive's two friends hide in an alcove, secretly watching the excruciating proceedings until they give themselves away with drunken giggling.

The narrator and Olive spend a lot of time together over the next couple of decades, in good times living from the proceeds of favours to rich men in Holland and elsewhere, in less good times shuffling from rented hovel to rented hovel, and in the worst times spending their nights under the stars.

Ultimately, Olive's unhealthy lifestyle catches up with her, and the relationship between the two friends enters a final, difficult phase.

Olive is an interesting character, a reckless survivor whose underlying sadness manifests itself in compassionate acts towards both human beings and animals. Yet, although she is believable, one feels that Ruebsamen only skates the surface of her life and personality. The descriptions of Olive and the narrator's meeting, and the crisis at the end of the story, are rendered in great detail, but the many years in between are glossed over quickly. This is a short story that one feels should have been extended to a novella. In addition, the bitter ending, which archly subverts the portrayal of the tender semi-lesbian relationship that has gone before, feels contrived and melodramatically nihilistic.

This is the third story I have read in Dutch, and it was the most challenging so far. The prose is knowing and colloquial, with a fair bit of slang. I had the translation by Michele Roberts to hand, which eased a lot of the difficulties and helped introduce me to a new style of Dutch writing.

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