BEF 2011/14 – Desire [Netherlands]

08/04/2011

The protagonist of Manon Uphoff’s Desire courts a bad ending.  As a teenage girl she possesses all the attendant curiosities that come with the transition from adolescence to womanhood, the outward flowering of a dormant sexuality that marks the maturing of a young woman perhaps more than the first swelling of the chest or the first menstruation. She has been sneaking into her brother’s room when he is not at home to read a book called The Geisha, an erotic tale in which the writer wants to “make love to both of them [Lucille and Amarylla] probably at the same time”.
She likes to read fairy tales, but not of the vanilla Cindarella type, no, she prefers the dark cocoa kind, dark and bitter, like dark chocolate:

The Little Mermaid dissolving into foam amid the waves, the Snow Queen who kissed a child’s heart to ice, and the Red Shoes, which forced Karen to dance upon her mother’s grave – these interested her.

Perhaps impelled by The Geisha she makes herself up to appear older than her fifteen years and gains entry to a nightclub, alone, leaving in the early morning with a man of oriental appearance, whose narrow eyes are mysterious and whose fingernails “[gleam] dimly like the inside of a shell”.  He is much older than her, one a child and one an adult, both know it, neither care.  They walk through the city, somewhere in Holland (Amsterdam?  Rotterdam?  The Hague?) and end up back at the man’s residence, where Uphoff’s adumbrative tone is realised, and the girl is raped.

Uphoff’s prose is generous with similes; everything is like something else, and a sense of displacement is achieved, of reality ceding ground to the imagination of a girl whom we can’t be sure hasn’t been slipped a drug in her drink.

The excitement grew in her.  She felt she was swelling and drawing the darkness of night up into her, like a flower does sweet water.  On the town square she imagined she was no longer in any normal city – she was in a world of glass and stone, where she and the man were the only two warm animals.  The thrum of distant cares sounded like bumblebees.

And later, at the man’s place,

His hand was a fish gliding up under the cloth, across her skin.  He pulled the blouse up over her head, his nails ticking against her nipples.  His mouth searched for hers and his tongue slid in like an oyster.

The girl’s experiences, of her night and of the sex itself, is animalised, dehumanised; it is scattered across the animal kingdom, insects to molluscs, yet avoids those beasts (bear, wolf, lion, say) whose predatory nature identify them with a violent reputation.  Indeed, in one phrase, suggestive of the awakening desire in her breast, “[she] cupped his neck in her hand, as though she was holding a kitten.”

Uphoff writes,

He asked her to go home with him, and she said “yes,” following the same urge that drove her to tug at the translucent skin around her nails in the bus and watch the lines of welling blood.

It is this urge to see what’s beneath the surface that lands her in hot water.  Her careless sexual curiosity and desire is turned against her by the man who desires it more, who says that it’s “going to happen anyway“.  He shows her the rapacity that dwells at the heart of unchecked desire, sovereign of the addict in its extreme form.  She succumbs to him (not without a struggle), sublimating first her own desire to the fear and pain of the sexual act, retreating like a sea anemone from the shadow of the man “enveloping her”.  But then she inverts her stiff resistance to join in the rocking coital rhythm, and in her pleasure dissolves, as did the Little Mermaid, like “foam on the sea”.

Sex is notoriously difficult to write well, and so much kitschy prose fumbles shakily at the literary in a bid to strip it of any Mills-&-Boon-isms (throbbing this, glistening that, thrusting here, plunging there) from the text.  Winking equivocal phrases, simile and metaphor worked and overworked, engorged and purple, coy periphrasis.  The whole thing collapses under its own weight; it is the writer exhibiting herself, when love should really be made indoors, out of sight.  Fortunately for Desire Uphoff largely avoids this.  Yes, the story abounds in similes, but they are not over-reaching, and are successful in evoking a sense of disorientation.  There are one or two lines (“…power and rage came pouring out, and a wanting, a wanting that frightened here,” ” …she gushed out like water on a stone floor.”) that provoke a wince with their melodrama, but they are by far the exception.  The last line is exemplary of Uphoff’s rhythmic prose that calls to mind the kind of tongue-twisting games that children play, reminding us that for all of the man’s “now you’re a woman,” the girl is still, in fact, a girl: “The zipper’s copper-colored teeth stuck out crookedly.”

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Red Shoes, the young girl Karen receives her titular footwear only to discover that they are magic shoes that force her to dance non-stop.  She dances on and on and on and is unable to remove them without the aid of the village executioner who lops off her feet – which are then carried away still in the dancing red shoes.  Desire is a strong story of those things that we lose and never get back, of innocence lost, of those Red Shoes that dance off into the distance and never return, of those things that break and can never be put back together again.

‘Desire’ is translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

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