This has been the year for major fiction from the Netherlands: memorable books from Marcel Möring, Helga Ruebsamen, and Tessa de Loo—and now this brilliant first novel, a compact epic of the consequences of European colonization of Africa, written by a Dutch Renaissance man who’s also a well-known actor and opera singer.
Based on the true story of two African princes, cousins who are uprooted from their Gold Coast Ashanti village and sent to Amsterdam in 1837 to be educated, it’s a potent dramatization of culture shock, ethnic injustice, and exploitation—revealed by a narrator who only gradually realizes how much has been taken from him. He’s the eponymous Kwasi, who writes the story of his life in 1900 while residing on a coffee plantation in Java, following the last of several token appointments granted him by the Dutch government. Kwasi recalls experiences shared with his cousin Kwame, as beneficiaries of a regime eager to retain its rights to a thriving slave trade. Kwasi consents to “blend in,” unlike his troubled cousin, whose determination to “stand out” widens the ever-increasing gap between them. The one “assimilates” perfectly to European culture; the other enters the Dutch colonial army, finally returning to Africa, unable—as he had long feared—to live among his people any longer. Japin crystallizes these conflicts in several stunning scenes: episodes at a boarding school, and later at the Dutch court, where the cousins are alternately welcomed and abused; a painful public speech given by Kwasi, in which he loftily criticizes “the religion, customs, and thinking of my forebears”; a long exchange of letters after the cousins are separated for the last time; and particularly a moment of blinding clarity when Kwasi, examining a daguerreotype of himself, sees both “a white man with a black shadow, and a dark man with a white aura . . . [and regretfully concludes that] I have been both these men.”
As artful and moving an analysis of the tragedy of colonialism as we have seen in many years.