Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 18, 2010

The King of Tuzla (2009), by Arnold Jansen op de Haar, translated by Paul Vincent

I was expecting to find this book interesting: the story of the former Yugoslavia has intrigued me ever since it fell apart in the barbarous wars that fragmented the country into Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia et al in 1992.  King of Tuzla promised to be the tale of a young UN peacekeeper who is unexpectedly embroiled in a real war in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars.

The book was sent to me for review by the publisher so I felt obliged to finish it, but I might not have otherwise.  The translation from the Dutch is clunky, not just because of mistakes like ‘snorted’ for ‘snored’; ‘costed’ for ‘cost’; and ‘post-deaf ears’, but because the language simply doesn’t flow.  Whether this is a feature of the original Dutch I can’t tell but it hampers the reading.  So does the occasional howler such as this one: precocious girls laughed at the cars with their bad teeth (p50) or this one which had me momentarily wondering why Tijman had failed Office Training School until I realised the mistake:

Beyond the parade ground was the castle, Henricus.  Beneath the gate were the names of his predecessors were displayed.  Their names had been scratched on every stone.  In some cases the year of passing out was added. He could have inserted his own. Passed out 1986.  But he hadn’t. (p84)

And on p153 when Tijman is reflecting on his sense of alienation in French, shouldn’t Je est un autre be Je suis un autre or J’ai été un autre?? Update: Apologies to the translator, I was wrong about this.  Je est un autre, which looks ungrammatical to a student of French like me, is apparently a famous quotation from Arthur Rimbaud, interpreted as meaning that the inner-self is separate from the concept of self, undefined and foreign even to oneself.

The author is a former soldier who served in the UN as a peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia, and it seems to me that he assumes knowledge of events that many readers may not share.  (His acronyms are annoying too: what kind of military vehicle is a YPR??) With the passage of time the confusion felt by those of us observing the dissolution of the country from a distance has become even more muddled; I came to this book with vivid memories of the genocide and the so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’  as it was reported here, but I had only a vague recollection of the geo-political conflict i.e. that the Serbs were against the Croats and the Bosnians.

So, for example, when a mother cryptically replies to a child’s query about where father is with the ‘mysterious word Vareš, that dreadful word which shouldn’t be spoken, (p59)  I had no idea what it meant.  Was it an admonition to be quiet indicating some kind of problem in the relationship with the mother? Was it a reference to a friend or relative perhaps dead or on the wrong side? Was it an allusion to some atrocity or underground resistance or political movement?  It turns out to be a small town in Central Bosnia but Wikipedia didn’t enlighten me any further, and it’s not until a good while later that there’s a snippet in the book about there having been ‘ethnic-cleansing’ there.  I found the first 50 pages a chore while I tried to unravel what was going on politically and geographically, and to sort out which if any of the snapshot characters were going to be significant.

I did like the cameos of characters, but I found it frustrating that some stories were never followed up. Galib Prolaz, a civil servant harassed out of his position and into farming, vanishes after two pages.  His survival mattered to me even though parts of the narrative about him were incomprehensible.  This is from the first page, (curiously numbered page 11 in the table of contents and page 13 on the page):

Galib had returned home with his briefcase and his sandwiches.  He said to his wife that it really was war now.
Not long after, in his own village, ‘the man from Marrakech’ had disappeared; he was blue like the men who lived in the Southern Atlas Mountains.

Was ‘blue’?  What does that mean?  And why does the sudden disappearance of this man from Marrakesh cause a panic that makes all the Croats ‘leave the village head over heels’? (Unfortunate imagery, that, IMO).  Is Galib a Croat? a Muslim? A Serb who objects to the harassment? We don’t know because he insists on defining himself as Yugoslav, not as a member of any particular ethnic group – but if he’s a symbol of what might have been, and that the unity that had existed is irrecoverable, it’s a bit flimsy.

I don’t know what the central character Tijman was expecting when he joined the army and become a UN peacekeeper, but he finds himself dismayed when trouble erupts.  Perhaps where he comes from there hasn’t been the avalanche of books and films that depict the horror and confusion of war because it’s all a bit of a surprise to him.  The best part of the book, however, is his diary entries from when his unit is under attack, reinforcements don’t seem to be forthcoming and he secures the Tuzla airbase.  This part reads more like a memoir, and seems more authentic and less disjointed than the rest of the book.

I think I learned more about the banal cruelty of war from Danis Tanovic’s 2001 film No Man’s Land.  Reviewed on Kinoeye, this film … never asks about the comparative merits of the nationalist claims of the different sides in the Bosnian war… The first half of the film has three enemy soldiers trapped in a trench between the front lines, in various degrees of misery, both scared of and dependent on each other. The opportunities for black humour in this situation are obvious, and the film relishes them. This humour has little do to with exploration of character; rather, it works on the premise that people, especially young men, and including soldiers, are very much alike, making the battle lines drawn between them all the more absurd.

The second half of the film is a critique of the role of the UN and the media.  Deeply cynical, it questions whether neutrality is possible or desirable. As Wikipedia says, UNPROFOR’s mission in Bosnia was to guard the humanitarian aid convoys, to remain neutral and act as a mere bystander.   No Man’s Land shows that at times this can sometimes be patently absurd and is an affront to our ideas about the UN’s humanitarian role, but the film-maker has chosen not to acknowledge that countries in conflict insist on strict conditions for any external force intervening in their affairs.  Still, it’s a very good film.

For me, the biggest problem with King of Tuzla is its disconnectedness.  It’s as if the author has needed to get things off his chest and has insisted on including a jumble of characters and incidents that seem to have little bearing on the narrative.  There are snippets of information that seem irrelevant or strange: why, for example, was it impressed upon Tijmen that he should not shake hands with the elderly members of the Officer Selection Board? (p82) I couldn’t make much sense of the book, except to recognise that this type of military activity is necessarily confused and confusing, and that one way or another it exerts a human toll on all the participants.

But we knew that already, didn’t we? From All Quiet on the Western Front to Fly Away Peter to any number of reflective works about the horrors of war, we know that young men go off to war in search of adventure and excitement and come back disillusioned.  We know also that war impacts on the sense of identity because these experiences take place when soldiers are still so young.  Those  books are worth reading as works of enlightenment as well as works of literature, but I don’t think King of Tuzla succeeds as either. But don’t take my word for it: Stu Allen really liked it and rated it five stars, and Sue at Whispering Gums feels that it has its merits..

For anyone interested in the history of the former Yugoslavia, I recommend Brian Hall’s The Impossible Country.  This superb book is an account of the author’s travels through Yugoslavia just before and as it broke up, and is a poignant portrait of how ethnic groups who lived in harmony together for many years erupted into hatred and violence that shocked the world. (See an excellent review by D R Godine at Google Books.)

For a harrowing but illuminating perspective on the impact of this war on civilians, Music for the Third Ear by Susan Schwartz Senstad is also well worth reading, if you can find a copy.

Author: Arnold Jansen op de Haar
Title: King of Tuzla
Translator: Paul Vincent
Publisher: Holland Park Press, 2010
ISBN: 9781907320064


  1. Oh dear, I wonder if I will think the same…it’s getting close to the top of my pile.


  2. It was a disappointment, Sue, but maybe you will find something in it.


  3. Maybe you misundrstood this as a war book – he was a peacekeeper, from the Dutch army, a small army which had for nearly 50 years previous not been involved in a war zone as large as Bosnia. So yes Tijmen was out of sorts. The translation was wonderful – it manages to retain the feel of Tijmen being Dutch and may have been poor grammatically in places but I took that as Paul Vincent wanting to retain a Dutch feel to Tijmen’s words. As for the locals, it seems to sum up the feeling of people of the time, a lot of people caught in the conflict did see themselves as Yugoslav. Having worked in 92 and 93 in Germany with people from Bosnia and Croatia they rang true. At the end of the day Arnold is a soldier and this seemed like a heartfelt book by a man deeply touched by this conflict as a look at his bio would tell. His books and poems all reflect the lasting effect this had on him, all the best Stu
    (This comment edited for typos LH).


    • I wonder at this Stu, reading this book now, I have to say I agree with Lisa. The English feels clunky and while the English tends to be close to how we would formulate sentences in Dutch, that doesn’t contribute to the flow of the book at all. In places, the translation sticks so close to the Dutch that sentences seem to have been translated word-for-word from the Dutch, which makes it grammatically wrong in English. If this was conscious decision of the translator, I think it was a poor choice.


      • Hello Iris, I love it when you comment because irises are my favourite flower and there they are on your gravatar!
        This book still bothers me a bit. I felt as if there was a real story in there struggling to get out, and it was obscured by the production values of the book. It’s such a shame when language is a barrier to shared understanding.


        • I agree Lisa. I just read Haar’s statement about the fighting at Tuzla being forgotten because of Screbrenica and I can see that this is part of why he wrote the book, but it never really seems to come across as I think it should. It doesn’t have that kind of impact.

          And thank you, irises are favourite flowers for me too, but I think I must be biased because of my name. I guess I will simply have to comment here more often, if they make you smile.


          • Hello again, Iris, I forgot to say that I am keeping an interested eye on your Dutch reading month. I have too many books on my TBR to add many more, but I’m watching to see if there is one that is a must-read because the only Dutch Lit I’ve ever read is The Twin.


  4. sorry notice two typos 93 and germany sorry replied via phone

    >No problem…It’s hard to avoid typos with a phone keyboard LOL, I have edited it, cheers Lisa


  5. […] all morning I ve been wondering if I got it wrong after reading a review of King of Tulza that anz lit lover pingback to mine ,Now oddly enough when I look yesterday there was no reviews on non dutch blogs came up in […]


  6. Thanks for responding on this, Stu, I know that you have more familiarity with the issues than I do which is why I refer people to your POV for another opinion.
    I’ve taught quite a few children who were refugees from this conflict so I think it’s one we should know more about, even at this distance.


  7. Hmm… I have to say that the spelling / grammar / translation mistakes would bother me as well :S Were for Where for example, seems a true mistake rather than just local speech variances.


  8. I received this book too, and I wrote to the publisher explaining why I wasn’t going to review it – I actuallly returned it to them which is unusual for me. I found it “bitty” and hard to follow, too rich in military detail and ultimately uninteresting. It lacked flow and as you pointed out, the translation was clunky. The production values were poor – it looked like a self-published book. A shame as I have every hope that Holland Park Press will do well.


  9. Fair comment too, Tom. I am interested in reading books in translation – it stands to reason that there must be excellent writers doing wonderful things in other languages, but it is important that the translation is good, and the editing process should be there to iron out any flaws.


  10. Hmmm…I’m now wondering whether I’ll return it. The first thing I thought when I received it was that it looked self-published. I’ve so laden with books I want to read that I’m not sure I want to commit the time to this. Will ponder a little, but maybe that’s what I’ll do.


  11. Yes, Sue, I’m wondering too: What is the right thing to do with a review copy that you don’t fancy? If a publisher sends a book unsolicited, I think it’s ok to offer it unread as a giveaway, either on the blog if it suits the readership or the OpShop if it doesn’t. I certainly don’t feel I have to incur the postage to return it.
    But I offered to do this one, and postage to Australia is expensive, so I felt I owed it to the publisher to read it, and having done that, I felt I owed it to my readers to give my honest response. (My review policy makes all this clear).
    On the other hand, I remind myself: I blog for pleasure, and the basis of my blog is reading for pleasure. Time is so precious – and reading under a sense of obligation is no fun at all…


  12. I want to say that this is a great blog, and I’m a bit shy commenting after you all, as you all seem professional reviewers, but here goes.

    I have to say that I had a different opinion, and actually found the novel far more enjoyable than you did. Firstly, and importantly, there is essentially a beautiful story there that is far more than the sum of the words written.

    I completely agree that the grammatical errors and typos need to be sorted out. Yet there were other things that were not errors precisely. With translated literature, sometimes it is necessary to keep to the original expression in order to be true to the character, and to the author, and I’d like to imagine that was the intention here.

    I noticed you didn’t mention the close of the book, where the author uses the title poem of his anthology Yugoslav Requiem as Tijmen’s kind of poetic reflection on all the previous events. Along with the digressions to other characters and the diary extracts, I thought that was a pleasant, creative aspect of the novel and a great way to end it.

    I wouldn’t even dare to suggest that this book was perfect, but I think it is far from a failure or unpleasant. I hope your reviews will help Holland Park Press to improve where necessary, because I think it is a wonderful story and I look forward to the sequel.

    I shall stop taking up space now, sorry. Humbly, Jay


  13. Hello Jay and thank you so much for your thoughtful response.
    I must correct you impression that I’m a professional reviewer first, however, because I’m not. I’m just a primary school teacher who likes to read a lot!
    You’re right about the poetry in King of Tuzla, and some of it is very beautiful. We don’t often think of soldiers as poets, do we?
    You’re also right about HP Press: they should have had a native English speaker to proofread it thoroughly and many of the glaring errors could have been fixed. In Australian dollar values, that would have added about $250 to production costs and it would have been money well spent. I think a good author deserves that.
    I hope you visit ANZ LitLovers again, Jay, because I value your input. I have a good pile of works in translation on my TBR (mainly Nobel prize winners) and I mean to tackle more of them!


  14. Thank you, Lisa. I would love to see more of your reviews. I look forward to reading reviews on your other translated works, too, as I find that they can be the most tricky at times.

    Thank you again. Humbly, Jay


  15. HI Lisa. I have read it now and must say I partly agree with you — I’ll post my review soon (maybe today if I get organised). Just wanted to say though that the P. 11 in the table of contents is right really. The Table of contents gives pagination for the Part title pages (even though none of those pages are numbered) and not for the page the text starts on. Also, I think Galib is Muslim as it does say the family goes to a mosque. But, I’m being a bit pedantic as I did find it a bit of a plod at times!


  16. […] This book has received some varied reviews. You may like to read a couple: Stu at winston’sdad and Lisa at ANZLitLovers. […]


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