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Words Without Borders

Reading Jan Wolkers in Poland

The world of academia is a peculiar one.
The last day of my stay in Wroclaw, I was invited to speak to students at the department of Dutch studies at the University of Wroclaw.
I had met the head of the department fourteen days earlier at a dinner organized by the Dutch embassy. Shortly before the coffee arrived, we engaged in a discussion about Turkish Delight, a novel by the Dutch author Jan Wolkers that was published in 1969.
The head of the Dutch department was annoyed by the dirty words that can be found in this novel. I would say a bit more than just annoyed. In his opinion, Jan Wolkers could not be considered part of the Dutch canon, because of his foul language.
I was irritated by this discussion. Not because I think that Jan Wolkers is necessarily the best author, or that foul language should always be rewarded, but I thought that discussing the merits of Turkish Delight in 2007 would be equivalent to discussing the merits of Stravinsky in 2007.
You might dislike Stravinsky, maybe for good reasons, but trying to rewrite the history of music in order to get rid of Stravinsky would be absurd.
The discussion at the dinner hosted by the Dutch ambassador to Poland got a little bit out of hand.
And while entering the department of Dutch at the University of Wroclaw this afternoon, I could still feel the tension.
The head of the department was there to introduce me to the students, but it was evident that he wasn’t too sympathetic to my work.
The question is: why invite an author whom you dislike? And if you feel obliged to invite this author, why insisting on introducing him to the students? And if you think for one reason or the other that no author can speak to your students without being introduced by you, why not choose to be honest and say: “Dear students, I think the books of the author I introduce to you today are rubbish, but some people tend to think differently, so judge for yourself."
But as I said, the codes of the world of academia are sometimes difficult to decode.
At the end of this discussion, the head of the department invited me to come back with the words: “This house will always be open to you.”
I answered: “My house will always be open to you, Professor.” Not only the world of academia is peculiar.

(Words Without Borders, March 4, 2007)