Writer Anjet Daanje impresses with her genius in new great novel

On so many levels The song of stork and dromedary a stunning novel that you would almost forget that the power also lies in small moments. In scenes and sentences that are so charged with feeling that they parachute you into the middle of a human life.

Like this scene, of a reluctant declaration of love on the moor, on an English summer’s day at the end of the nineteenth century: ‘They look at the clouds passing by, and she has taken off her hat, the sun has stained her cheeks, and she herself begins about, she says she’s going to be a spinster. He asks her if she minds that, and she mockingly says that it can only improve her reputation. Would you like to get married, he says, she laughs, a fly hums between them and lands on her cheek, she absently beats him away. Whom should I marry, she says, and he casually says the two of them could. There is silence next to him for a few minutes, he holds his breath. Yes, she says, that could be. Do you want that, he asks, yes, she says, I do want that. That’s what they say about it that afternoon, his heart is overflowing with happiness.’

Or this little sentence, where shame is relieved with black humor in the time of an epidemic: ‘The typhus is like a man, he wants everyone but her.’

And here you feel the pain of deep humiliation: in a factory the daughter of the former owner, who has fallen from grace, now works as a cleaning lady. “He insists she clean his office while he works at his desk. She sweeps and dusts and mops and chamois, and she feels his gaze upon her, not mocking, her defeat is too serious for that, not amused, he looks at her as he would a beast, without much interest, because it is simply within his field of vision.’

Eleven episodes

That is already beautiful, but there is more. Its strength also lies in the overarching construction, which is most striking about The song of stork and dromedary† It is a gigantic novel, 650 richly printed pages, which is in fact made up of eleven connected episodes. It is one story, but also a combination of eleven stories, spanning two centuries. About eleven main characters, whom we all follow more or less from cradle to grave. In all kinds of genres: there are goth ghost stories, there is Dickensian worker realism, there are mysteries, a story on the fringes of World War I, a story of the aftermath of World War II, there are family stories, love stories. And above everything towers a story about a writer who died young, whose life and work continues to sing in all episodes.

Eliza May Drayden is her name – she lived on the Yorkshire moor, in a time that kept her caged, with its bourgeois customs and coercive mores (particularly for women), which she nevertheless managed to escape. In her imagination, by writing a novel. An outlandish novel, so daring, different, and so full of human knowledge and unruly wisdom that it disturbed as much as it fascinated readers. And that of such a young woman, who was so headstrong and self-assured, so talented.

Where have we heard that before? Writer Anjet Daanje (1965) makes no secret of the fact that Emily Brontë and her only novel, the literary classic Wuthering Heightsserved as an inspiration to her. That the mind of Brontë has become skilled about Daanje is evident from Dwelling Groundsa ‘supplementary booklet’ to this novel – for which Daanje translated poems by Brontë and added poems himself, which really seem to have sprung from the same spirit.

Emily Brontë is like a ghost in this novel, invisible and yet omnipresent, just as Eliza May Drayden comes to us mainly through others: she haunts the echoes of her biography, her theme, the atmosphere, but also the structure. At the same time, Daanje has created something that can exist separately from Brontë, and that is also completely eccentric, daring and different. because The song of stork and dromedary also contains, interwoven between the eleven stories, a cut-away writer’s biography. We read excerpts from (so-called!) biographical works about Eliza May Drayden, but also letters from her sisters and other relatives, even the notes of a manic biographer, and clippings that give insight into the immeasurable amount of Drayden historiography. †So-called so historiography.) Reading the novel thus naturally takes on aspects of an obsessive study – a study that you could not have imagined would grab you that way.

Maximalist

Anjet Daanje is a maximalist as a writer. Someone who does not seek mastery in the limitation, but in the combination and accumulation. But she does not lose sight of humanity in this construction, she pays attention to the big and the small. It is both-and, also, everything, and everything at once – think of the authorship of Hanya Yanagihara (to paradise), by Margaret Atwood, by Olga Tokarczuk (The Jacob’s Books† In Dutch literature, only The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch a bit nearby. Where Daanje’s previous, ninth novel The remembered soldier (2019) was a masterpiece in one piece, you should call this her magnum opus – the book that has everything, in which Daanje demonstrates what she has to offer, what she can do with her literature. And that’s an intimidating amount. It is incomprehensible that the novel does not perish because of the multitude.

Her sense of drama is crushing – countless times. As in the poignant episode about biographer Agnes Chambers’ daughter, who owns a mysterious notebook that allegedly belonged to Eliza, though Chambers never deciphers the meaning of her scribbling. When a rival in Draydenology (a haughty rooster, his pedantic writings, which Daanje faked superbly) disputes the authenticity of the booklet, and also points out errors in Chambers’ work, it ruins her – and her family. Her daughter Kathleen becomes the named cleaning lady at the factory.

At least as dramatic is the almost surreal story about two German sisters in London, who can only live out their problematic origins after the Second World War in a hidden game together. That amounts to self-loathing and self-betrayal, which leads to them inflicting punishments on each other to eliminate that feeling of betrayal. That dramatic fact could have supported an entire novel – but Daanje lets them grow up and start a love triangle with a German tenant, or rather with the image of him, and especially with each other. That episode is as breathtaking as it is heartbreaking.

Persuasiveness

What’s in it? Certainly also in Daanje’s wonderful, very personal storytelling style – which testifies to a certain carelessness in conforming to literary laws of storytelling. The maximalist also shows itself in her style: show don’t tell is not a must, as it turns out. When Daanje tells about two French sisters, one of whom (Amélie) tells how much the piano teacher is in love for her sister (Laure), it reads, in big words: ‘On Laure’s face, disbelief and joy compete for precedence, the Amelie moves how defenseless she is, woman and yet still a child in her heart, she sits down on the bed with her.’ That it doesn’t get dull or sentimental after all is because the feeling is so seamlessly intertwined with everything else – a writing technique that was also crucial in The remembered soldier† That sentence has everything at once: perception, interpretation, feeling, reflection, action. And even a cliché, ‘fighting for priority’, which you don’t stumble over anyway.

Also read: Writer Anjet Daanje: ‘I think I find the normal world insufficient’

As an extension of that: Daanje also masters the genre laws that you could call clichés, but which they use as if they were fresh from scratch, and with which she evokes worlds that are atmospheric and very believable. Sometimes it really is like reading a nineteenth century book. In the first episode we are immediately wonderfully marinated in strikingly archaic descriptions, when Daanje writes about a depositor of the dead (‘she awoke in the shadow of Death and went to rest in it, every day from scratch, as a relentless march from bed to bed”). When she meets Eliza, who has a grieving sister, the girl asks, “Is God hungry?”, instantly becoming an archetypal ghost girl. Half a lifetime later, when Eliza herself is buried, the depositor hears, according to the gothgenre, banging coming out of the box, the only one. It completely convinces.

It also depends on the storytelling perspective. Daanje writes in the third person singular, in the present tense – so that we seem to experience everything directly, there is nothing between the event and its description, we are caught up in the perceptions and feelings of the characters. At least, that’s what Daanje makes it look like: there is indeed a narrator who creates order, who can fast-forward the time, as in the above passage about the proposal on the moor: suddenly the whole afternoon is over. Then the narrator suddenly seems all-determining, all-knowing – and therefore very reliable. But Daanje plays with that reliability, as also in this passage about a crush: ‘She is not attractive, yet he desires her, it is as if she has bewitched him with her desire, as if she forced him to do this, because she wants him, he is convinced of that.’ At first, a truth seems to be proclaimed – but in the tail of the sentence it only appears to be truth, his particular conviction. That dynamic is extremely sophisticated, but the most important effect is: you believe it.

silver bells

And you wonder why. Wherein lies the genius of this author. Because you sometimes have to think about who exactly is speaking, how this book is put together – and what those echoing stories and recurring elements such as silver bells, piano music and even a buzzing fly mean – Daanje leads you to the overarching theme of the novel. Each time, in all eleven stories, The song of stork and dromedary for life in the face of impermanence. In other words: for the great nothingness that is fought with a fiery hunger for life. In each episode the characters struggle with the hope and belief that it does make sense, each time singing the song of illusions and imagination – the way to reconcile ourselves with death.

Manners, you must say. For while for the nineteenth century God and spirits offered solutions to the riddle of advancing time, modern man found other forms for this: in the last episode, the certainties offered by mathematics and quantum mechanics are clung to. Because Daanje takes all these forms of faith seriously, in the meaningful power they have, she takes a position that you could call postmodern: imbued with the realization that one pure truth is unattainable, or non-existent.

This makes the comparison between The Discovery of Heaven and The song of stork and dromedary not so crazy – with Daanje coming out as the wiser. It does not count on a greater plan, recognizes that there may be nothing but chaos. And people: Daanje sings the song of people who give the meaning themselves. It is always found in new stories. As in the idea, from quantum mechanics, that at the level of the smallest particles there is no distinction between living and dead matter. Does death exist then?

This is how it grows The song of stork and dromedary also develops into a fundamental novel of ideas, not of the proclaiming, but seeking kind. Because the riddle, of Eliza May Drayden, but also of life and death, only gets bigger. And Anjet Daanje manages to show a message of comfort in it. The song of stork and dromedary is nothing less than a brilliant demonstration of the life-transcending power of stories, of literature.