V is for Van Lieshout

Ted van Lieshout(c)Ted van Lieshout WEB
Ted van Lieshout

Ted van Lieshout is an award-winning Dutch poet, author and illustrator, well-known for pushing the boundaries when writing for children and young adults. His book Brothers, translated by Lance Salway and published in 2001 by Harper Collins, it was shortlisted for the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation in 2003 and has been re-issued in 2011.

I was a little confused as to why it was set in the seventies when it was written in the nineties, but apparently it is semi-autobiographical and based on van Lieshout and his own brother (or one of them – he is one of eleven).

It is the story of two brothers, Luke and Marius, yet it begins six months after Marius’s death. Their mother wants to burn Marius’s things in a grand gesture of farewell. Luke is outraged and determined to save his brother’s diary by writing in it himself. So begins a conversation that the brothers could not have had in life. The subtitle of the English translation is Life, Death, Truth and although those are very big themes to be covered in such a slim book, it is a fair reflection of what it is about. Luke discovers the truth of various events in both their lives, beginning to come to terms with his own sexuality and insecurities as he gains an understanding of his brother’s. All the while, the question hanging over him is Can you be a brother when your brother is dead?

Being written as a diary, or perhaps a series of letters, it has an immediacy and dry wit that draw the reader in straight away. Occasionally, I found this aspect of the book irritating – it’s difficult to give the reader enough background information without breaking character – but for the most part it works. It is moving and sensitive, yet never sentimental, and Lance Salway has succeeded admirably in maintaining that balance in his translation. A word about the title: in Dutch it is Gebr. (“Bros.”) yet in English, French, German and Italian (at the very least – those are the languages I understand of the ones I’ve seen) it has become Brothers. Perhaps this spelling out is inevitable – to me at least Bros. is too reminiscent of the ’80s pop group – yet it loses something. As the Nederlands Letterenfonds website points out:

“Van Lieshout uses the abbreviation to indicate a breach in the relationship between two brothers and the premature end of a young life.”

All the same, even without that little subtlety, it’s a poignant and gripping story by a writer unafraid of taking risks and tackling some big ideas. The “scenes of a sexual nature” make it one for older teens, with the publishers pitching it at 15+.

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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