Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Boy Who Cast No Shadow - Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Something remarkable happened a couple of weeks ago when the Hugo nominations were announced; a Dutchman was nominated in the Novelette category. Although, especially in the short fiction categories, a slow movement towards a more diverse and international genre can be detected in recent years, I can't remember a translated work having made the ballot before. Thomas Olde Heuvelt is well known among genre fiction readers in the Netherlands, I've read two of his novels, the most recent one of which, Harten Sara has been reviewed on Random Comments. This novel is also expected to appear in English translation but other than that is is being translated, I haven't been able to find any details on that project.

The Boy Who Cast No Shadow was first published in 2010 and has appeared in Dutch in various places under the title De jongen die geen schaduw wierp. Olde Heuvelt has stated it was written as an ode to Pop Art by Joe Hill, a story he considers the finest short story of the twenty-first century. I'm afraid I haven't read it but the link might be interesting for fans of Hill's work. I first encountered The Boy Who Cast No Shadow in Pure Fantasy magazine number 19, published sometime in 2010. After winning the Paul Harland Prijs, one of the more prestigious Dutch awards for genre fiction, Olde Heuvelt invested his prize money in a professional translation and managed to get PS Publishing interested. The English translation is part of a collection called Unfit for Eden, edited by Nick Gevers and Peter Crowther. You can download the story as the publisher's website for free at the moment.

I have my reservations about Olde Heuvelt making the short list to be honest. At first glance it sounds like a remarkable feat of a  man who is very driven to succeed as a writer. Congratulations on his nomination, which is certainly a momentous occasion in the history of Dutch genre fiction, are in order. On the other hand it is telling that a man who, to my knowledge, only has one short story out in English (a second story titled The Ink Readers of Doi Saket is scheduled to appear on sometime in the near future) has managed to get nominated in what is essentially a popularity contest. The Hugo, supposedly the premier award in science fiction, has some credibility issues here. I guess this is an issue that comes up every year after the nominations are announced but clearly the need for a more robust membership base is still present. I haven't quite decided whether or not the very limited number of votes necessary to get on the ballot takes anything away from Olde Heuvelt's achievement or not. Of course it would have been a lot easier to make up my mind about this situation if he had submitted a story of lesser quality. Because The Boy Who Cast No Shadow is without a doubt worthy of the nomination.

The story is a fantastic piece about a boy named Look, who, as the title suggests, casts no shadow. He has no reflection in a mirror and no pictures can be taken of him. He doesn't know what he looks like and while his condition brings him his fifteen minutes of fame, is also causes him to wonder who he is. Not being able to see his face brings on an identity crises of sorts. Until he meets a boy who has a very different problem that is. Splinter is a boy named of glass, he is so fragile that even at the age of fourteen, he is the oldest boy with this condition in his family to survive. Despite this challenge he is an eternal optimist. Splinter will change the way Look views life forever.

As in Harten Sara, Olde Heuvelt uses the unreliable narrator to make things that are clearly impossible become real. There is no doubt in Look's mind that what he experiences is real, giving the whole story a kind of surreal atmosphere. The absurd situations the boys find themselves in and the limitations Splinter in particular encounters are told by someone who is convinced all this is actually happening. It clashes with the reader's sense of disbelief in interesting ways if taken literally. As an expression of vulnerably it is very clear though. In a way Splinter is a more successful character than Look. He feels he doesn't know who he is and that he has no ambitions or goals in life. The world is full of people like that, I don't think not being able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning is going to make much of a difference in that respect. All things considered, he handles his fame better than many other people would in his situation.

Having read the story both in the original Dutch and in the English translation I can say I like the translation a lot. It is a fairly loose translation I suppose, not following the original too literally in many places. It might be a touch too formal in some places. Olde Heuvelt uses a lot colloquialism in his writing, as one might expect in a story told from the point of view of a teenager. Some of that is quite difficult to translate directly but on the whole I think translator Laura Vroomen manages well enough. There are a few passages where she encounters more interesting problems. A reference to a commercial for instance, that is almost impossible to translate. Olde Heuvelt also uses one line of broken English in the Dutch version but in the translation it is grammatically correct. This is mostly due to the choice not to make Look too obviously Dutch. His name has been translated for instance, references to the town where he apparently lives, or, more likely, have been included because it sounds dorky in Dutch, has been removed, there's probably a few other minor things. Reading the Dutch version made me realize how much layers of meaning a text can actually have. It certainly isn't the easiest work to translate.

Will The Boy Who Cast No Shadow win a Hugo? Most likely not. To most of the voters he will be an unfamiliar name in a field of established authors. I also suspect that this kind of fantasy isn't the most popular among the Hugo voting crowd. I haven't read any of the other nominated works so I have no idea if there is any particular story that stands out in this crowd but from what I can tell, Olde Heuvelt is facing stiff competition. I don't think he'll get it but if he does, you won't hear me complain. The publication date of his fifth novel Hex is rapidly approaching. I'm looking forward to reading that.

Edited on April 28th 2013 to include the link to The Ink Readers of Doi-Saket.

Book Details
Title: The Boy Who Cast No Shadow
Author: Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Translation: Laura Vroomen
Publisher: PS Publishing
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: e-book
First published: 2010


  1. I'm working on a review of this, I loved it, and am happy to see it's still available as a free download from PS.

    I'm jealous of all my bi-lingual friends who can read a work in different languages and pick up all the layers and context. Having only read it in English, I never felt like Look was an unreliable narrator. I felt like everything (no matter how impossible) actually happened.

    1. I've been waiting for more reviews of this story to show up. I obviously read it differently that the Hugo voters would. It was fun reading it in both languages but I don't think I could do that for a whole novel. One of the advantages of short fiction I guess ;)