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Koos Tiemersma. De ljedder.

Koos Tiemersma. De ljedder. Ljouwert, Netherlands. Friese Pers. 2002. 360 pages. 17.50 [euro]. ISBN 90-330-1247-2

WORLD WAR II is far from forgotten in Friesland. The new novels of remembrance that keep appearing, and the old ones that keep reappearing in new editions, attest to that. Koos Tiemersma's De ljedder (The ladder) also takes its readers back to those years in the 1940s when many lives were changed forever. As the narrator announces at the beginning and reiterates at the ending of this story, "I was a child, thought as a child, acted as a child, at least before June '42; after that, everything changed." What changed and how is still haunting Jacob Nauta at age seventy when he returns to his childhood village. He comes to find closure for the pain of his memories but especially to erect a kind of memorial to the man who affected his wartime experience most profoundly, one who changed everything. In June 1942 Job Wassermann wandered onto the family farmyard, "never to leave again," invading the family's life while he stayed as a Jew in hiding. That's when the war really begins for young Jacob, for he is now the keeper of a deep, dark secret, a secret he must safeguard against the prying eyes and questions of all who pose a threat. Nevertheless, there comes a day when the Nazis raid the farmhouse. They fail to find the hiding place, but Job, in panic, commits suicide. That night Jacob's father and grandfather hurriedly and stealthily bury him in a corner of the Jewish section of the nearby cemetery.

Now, nearly sixty years later, Jacob comes back to that cemetery, which no longer includes a Jewish section. Nevertheless, here Jacob descends the ladder of his existence, falteringly, fearfully, disturbed by too much memory. "What has he started? ... What did he want to accomplish? Rest in place of his unrest, certainty in place of doubt? ... Can he still turn back? Does he want to?" He lets go of the last rung and places seven stones in a circle to the memory of Job, conscious of the biblical Jacob and his desert dream of the ladder connecting heaven and earth. Then he pronounces the Shema, a goyim uttering the sacred confession of God's ancient people. He has reached the end of his lifelong and lonely quest to search and know; he has made right what by dire necessity was neglected so long ago. As he turns to leave, however, he wonders, "What will people think who meet me on the way? An empty cart, a car, an older man, alone. And for the first time, they are right." His family is gone; even the old landmarks are gone. But the memories are not, for they cannot be buried.

This is Tiemersma's first novel, and it's an impressive debut. No novel evokes the sights and sounds and smells of the 1940s from a child's point of view as vividly as this one. And there are the memories not only of war but also of a beloved grandfather; of an aunt who loved and lost and then loved too desperately; of an uncle who secretly loved a married woman; of the hired man who loved to imitate The Fool, also known as Hitler; of first, preteen love. Brilliant comic touches spice the narrative, and such poetic devices as imagery and personification ("the sounds balanced as acrobats on her vocal cords and flipped one by one toward the outside, to thread themselves on the square in front of the mouth together into wo-ho-hords") enhance the high literary quality of the writing.

The literary future of Friesland brightens with the publication of this fine accomplishment.

Henry J. Baron

Calvin College
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Author:Baron, Henry J.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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