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Damn, the Amsterdam tram

15 July 2007 - Next Friday, Dutch journalist of the 20th century Henk Hofland turns eighty. He is through with life’s ‘eternal return of everything’, but not with writing about it. His latest novel is set against the background of Amsterdam district politics.

Hofland writes columns for NRC Handelsblad and for the Groene Amsterdammer magazine, and recently started publishing his memoirs in the new Torpedo magazine. In part one, he describes how a friend of his wanted to dump a few tank lorries full of animal blood on Dam Square to protest against the Vietnam War - but failed to find a sponsor.

In addition, he just published Cicero Consultants - perhaps the first novel in which Amsterdam district politics play such a central role (but perhaps not).

The novel starts with a tram slowing down before crossing the Hogesluis Bridge. The main characters are sitting at the Amstel Hotel terrace, discussing the needs of today’s Übermensch.

“They can buy prosthesis. Roaring exhaust pipe, silicone tits, stiletto, kalasjnikov, pills for everything and anything, weblog, blog away, everything for the Übermensch. But for the orator, there is nothing”. They decide to fill the gap by founding a consultancy that supplies devastating speeches.

Their services are hired by the protagonists in a conflict about a docklands development project. One of the parties wants to build prestigious houses for the well-to-do; the other envisions a Berlage Plan for today: “Space, recreation, employment, accessibility, the environment, throw in a mosque, safety, all integrated”.

The conflict escalates, culminating in a grotesque chaos reminiscent of the 1980 coronation riots and the 1966 construction workers’ revolt.

One of the protagonists is a rich, aging real estate tycoon, who wants to develop his project by any means, because it is a way to make sure people still need him. “If I don’t build anymore I’m dead. Or old, that’s the same thing”.

Hofland himself has a different view old age. “We don’t think about how old we are. We type away. We do as we please. And one day, the Grim Reaper turns up”, he said in a very amusing joint interview with him and his fellow writers and octogenarians Jan Blokker and Harry Mulisch in Vrij Nederland magazine.

Jan Blokker asked whether the others are also being called by press agency ANP more and more frequently to update their resumes, apparently to have their obituaries ready in case they die. “ANP get stuffed”, Hofland responded.

He said he was through with life’s ‘eternal return of everything’: “I just returned from Greece, four weeks in a completely different environment, and I think: damn, the Amsterdam trams and the facades, they’re still there. I’m so fed up”.

But he does not feel the same about writing: “That’s just having a bit of fun”.

Illustration: Hofland testing a cart he built (photo: VPRO).


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