Saturday, August 9, 2014

Hex - Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Thomas Olde Heuvelt has been making quite a name for himself in the Dutch speculative fiction market. Hex is the third novel I've read by him and in terms of craftsmanship, he is well ahead of most other authors in the field. He's been trying to get into the inroads in the English language market too. Several of his shorter pieces have been translated and last year, The Boy Who Cast No Shadow even made it to the Hugo shortlist. This year he's on there again with The Ink Readers of Doi Saket. He's made attempts to get his previous novel, Harten Sara (2011) translated but so far they have not resulted in a book on the shelves. The prospects for Hex are looking even better, the translation right and television rights have been sold. Provided it survives development hell, Hex might even make it to the small screen.

The village of Beek, near Nijmegen close to the Dutch-German border, hides a terrible secret. To outsiders it looks like an idyllic place but once you are unfortunate enough to move there, you're stuck. A woman burnt there as a witch in the seventeenth century is holding the village hostage. Her eyes and mouth are sown shut and the villagers are under strict orders not to attempt to communicate with the witch. Doing so almost always results in death. A strict regime to keep the village safe and the witch a secret to the outside world has been put in place. It has worked reasonably well but such restriction chafe, especially for the younger generation for whom the world, thanks to modern communication devices, does not stop at the edge of the village. Their attempt to gain a little more freedom sets in motion a series of events that will change the village forever.

Beek does indeed exist. I've lived in that part of the country for almost three years but I've never visited it. Olde Heuvelt has used quite a few locations that actually exist but the characters and events are of course fictious. He gives the place quite a rough treatment in his book. Lots of small minded people, plenty of paranoia, racist tendencies and mob mentality. That's on top of the havoc wreaked by the witch of course. It makes me wonder what someone born and raised in Beek would make of it.

The witch herself, a woman named Katharina van Wyler, is not the most original element in the story. Her history is not very well known but she was accused of bringing her son who died of the plague back to life. The superstitious locals then tortured her to death. She now haunts them as a vengeful reminder of the crimes the villagers committed in the past. On several occasions she has gotten into the head of villagers and made them commit suicide. The last time this happened was in the 1960s, well before the the younger generation in the village was born. Never having experienced the horror she can unleash firsthand, they are not so certain that all the restrictions imposed on their lives are necessary.

Olde Heuvelt doesn't really explore the motivations of Katharina in the novel. Instead he creates something of a generational conflict. Having to spend your entire life in the village of Beek, which has no economy to speak of, is inconceivable. The constant need of having to keep secrets from their fellow students and friends from outside Beek weighs on them. It is only natural that they start pushing against the restrictions to find out what they can get away with. In fact, in today's world, being cut off from the the rest of the country simply isn't an option. It's an expression of the small-mindedness of the village council that they do not see the need to adapt. Rebellious youngsters and conservative village Elders are an explosive mix and Olde Heuvelt strikes the spark in a very convincing way.

One of the most interesting things in this novel is the use of language. Modern Dutch is very much influenced by English. To the extent even, that for many recent inventions, no Dutch word exists. Computer, laptop and smartphone are part of the everyday vocabulary of the Dutch. On top of that a whole set of Anglicisms has entered the language, literal translations of English expressions. It makes me cringe every time I hear someone say 'soort van', 'daar heb je een punt', 'seks hebben' (or if you really want to make a purist cringe 'sex hebben') or 'fokking'. Obviously I don't have a problem with the English language, but I don't think the fact that it is the lingua franca of our time is an excuse for not to speak your own language properly. The most recent development the use of English words to replace words that do have a translation in Dutch. Recently I heard someone use the word flabbergasted (verbijsterd) in what was otherwise a Dutch sentence. If you pay attention to it, you'll hear plenty of examples.

Whether I like it or not, it's the way a lot of people talk these days and Olde Heuvelt makes his characters do it. Especially the younger ones use a lot of Anglicisms and English words. In fact, the title of the novel is probably the most clear expression of this fusion of languages. The Dutch word for witch is 'heks', while hex (pronunciation is almost identical) has a meaning in English as well. Olde Heuvelt himself has a fine command of the Dutch language. His prose is often quite creative and likely to give a translator a few headaches. It results in a pretty sharp contrast between dialogue and exposition in the book. It makes me wonder how much of this will survive translation.

In terms of style the novel is quite different from his previous novel as well. Harten Sara is almost entirely told from a first person perspective. In Hex, the entire community is the main character and to accurately describe what is going on, Olde Heuvelt switches a lot between characters. Especially towards the end of the novel, when things really start to heat up, you have to have a firm grasp of who is who in the village to follow the story. Given the number of characters employed, it could easily have been a much longer novel. Olde Heuvelt's writing is pretty concise considering the story he is trying to tell. It does go at the expense of the depth of some of the characters. There is one suicide towards the end of the novel for instance, that shocks the village but doesn't do much for the reader because we haven't seen much of this character except his self-righteous behaviour at a council meeting. Overall, I think this is the kind of tale that is more suited to speed and a more general overview of what is happening though. Olde Heuvelt is trying to show the impact on the larger community after all.

Where Harten Sara was much more of a character study and tended towards magical realism, in Hex Olde Heuvelt returns to the dark fantasy he showed in Leerling Tovenaar Vader & Zoon (2008).  It's fast paced, horrific and absolutely thrilling. I had to force myself to put it down a couple of times to go do other things. If you have the time for a reading binge, this is the kind of book you could read in one go. Personally I enjoyed the more challenging Harten Sara a bit more, but it is a fine novel. It will be interesting to see if it manages to conquer the English language market as well.

Book Details
Title: Hex
Author: Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Publisher: Luitingh-Sijthoff
Pages: 351
Year: 2013
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6025-7
First published: 2013


  1. Hi, I understand that for his English translation, Olde Heuvelt changed the ending. Could you please tell me, how does the Dutch version end? I would really like to compare the two - there were some things I found really unsatisfying about the English ending (questions left unanswered). Olde Heuvelt has refused to state the differences and insists curious readers should find a Dutch reader to bribe so - you're it! Hope to hear from you :)

    1. Ah this is where it gets complicated. I read the original Dutch version from 2013. After the book appeared in English, a second Dutch edition appeared in which Olde Heuvelt fiddled with the ending as well. I haven't read that but from what I understand he did quite a bit of rewriting on the end.

      It's been a while since I read it. If I remember correctly, in the Dutch version I read, the Witch wreaks havoc on the town, killing lots of people in a very chaotic scene. We see the events through the character Stefan de Graaf (who probably got another name in the English version). He loses his remaining son (the other one died earlier in the novel) and his wife but survives the scene. While he is passed out, the village dead march towards the river Waal and throw themselves in. In the epilogue we see Stefan in his now empty home. It is suggested that the witch comes for him there after all.