Bas Steman: ‘Talk flat is a kind of oil’

Apr 6, 4:02 PM


ZUTPHEN – Bas Steman (50), presenter and writer, wrote a book about two characteristic uncles, one of whom keeps silent about his war past and the other drowns out his pain with bravura. “It was a search for a background that I did not know.”

By Alize Hillebrink

Jovially swings open the door. Writer Bas Steman, living in the Nieuwstad in Zutphen, had given himself a year off as a writer after his novel ‘Morgan’, and then wrote a novel about love and death, but things turned out differently.

It turned out to be a book that was perhaps closer to himself than he initially thought. Like the main character Rudolf, Steman went in search of his roots. Initially unaware, but, digging into the old family stories, he realized how much he is connected to his hometown of Apeldoorn. He has little interest in the modern Apeldoorn of today. “I grew up in the 1970s, but embedded in the stories of the past.” It was the stories he heard on birthdays. “There was something magical about them. Yes, there was also an uncle who was always called ‘the coward’.”

war history
The Coward. Steman previously wrote a story with this title in the well-known series by De Geitenpers in Brummen. A story about a few characteristic great uncles and the war. It was his own publisher (Nieuw Amsterdam) who asked if he would not like to develop it into a novella. “Well, long story short, I started writing and researching and writing… and it became a novel. About the war, about two striking flat-talking brothers who lived together all their lives on a farm, but never really knew each other in each other’s war past.”

To research his story, he consulted his parents. “I was overwhelmed with information. The childhood of my grandparents and my parents. I didn’t know many things beforehand. Rudolf’s quest was, in a sense, mine.”

Rudolf has become a man who lacks something, but he does not know what, something that is somewhere, which resides in all those memories and thoughts that seem to find no connection anywhere, washed-out images of a line with their underpants, shirts and socks, kicked-out clogs at the back door, the rocking TV antenna on the facade. Old smells, everything intrudes, everything at once, everything that seemed to have fallen prey to oblivion, but was still there somewhere, in the attic of memories.

The degeneration of the countryside plays right through everything. “I am not strangely melancholy.” The uncles Gait and Bartus resist the decline of nature, the advancing new construction.

‘If it comes to nature, it will come to me too!’

“For me it has also been a search for a background that I did not know and which I have now embraced,” says Steman. “I now understand that I am an Apeldoorn, but not from now. In the second half of the last century, Apeldoorn has grown from 60,000 to 160,000 inhabitants. In the memory my family instilled in me, it still looks like the old days. Like the church, which was then free, now stands in the middle of Zevenhuizen.

flat talk
The family stories served as the setting for his novel. “During our conversations, my father started to talk more and more. I realized: that has to be in there. For a moment, inspired by Herman Finkers’ film ‘The legs’ from Twente, I even considered writing the book entirely in dialect, but then you would be writing for a very select audience.” He himself never learned to talk flat. “I grew up with ‘just learn Dutch, it’s no use talking flatly’. Birthdays were always flat talk, especially if there was alcohol in it. I could understand just fine, but not speak. Flat talk is a kind of oil. It immediately feels good, you belong, it breaks the ice, an old-fashioned currant bread feeling.”

Steman obtained the historical context from archives, including war diaries. According to him, the war in the east of the Netherlands is underexposed in the history books. “We look at the war from a Western perspective. The canon is about the bombing of Rotterdam, the February strike, Mad Tuesday, the Hunger Winter. The bombing of Enschede, Nijmegen, Hengelo, Zutphen and the large-scale evacuation of Arnhem are often not mentioned. While from September 1944 to May 1945 the front was here, in the east of the Netherlands.”

The bombers and dogfights that flew incessantly over Apeldoorn for days make him realize what it must have been like for his family. “Now I understand why my grandmother always crumpled when a plane flew over. There were bomb flights every day. What must that have meant?”

In his family, the conversation about the war was not avoided. “The way in which the war was still talked about was a light-hearted one. Humor was the only way to talk about it.” Steman interweaves it, suffused with dialect, in his story and in the figure of the uncles Bertus and Gait, both outspoken but uncomplicated characters, with their own logic and relativistic peasant wisdom. “For East Dutch people it must be a feast of recognition.”

Those two, always those two. So he saw (Rudolph) them, his uncles: strong, reliable and immortal, men who sometimes seemed to know life better. Wise wild men. Gait his pigeons, Bartus his traps. They shared a love for the land, for the animals and for rkvv-Gelria, the football club. He sanctified the card day even more than Our Lord Himself and also profaned it. The god of Gelria was all-powerful.

Uncle Bartus fascinated him. Rudolf enjoyed conversations where he had to keep his mouth shut. Where with Gait the silence could multiply freely, Bartus preferred to break it as quickly as possible with exaggeratedly cheerful jokes or stories.

‘It all started with the dusk,’ said Uncle Bartus. ‘Why should I be afraid of that?’

Rudolf had a special bond with his uncles. Admire them, cherish their wisdom. For example, he remembers the time his Uncle Gait said to him:

‘Rudeman, what I’m saying is: life isn’t something that gets better later on. Vandaoge is just as important as next year. So take a good look, fill, enjoy, and relax. A snail and a hare celebrate New Years at the same time.’

“Uncle Bartus had anxiety attacks from his war traumas and Uncle Gait had his secret. Bartus is the man who still suffers for the Jews he saw taken away from the Apeldoornsche Bosch. Gait is humble. He laughs at being called The Coward. Gait has his motives. He doesn’t want to hurt his brother. Ultimately, everyone has their own story and their own memory.”

De Lafaard, hardcover, 208 pp., 21.99 euros, will be available in bookshops from 7 April.

Signing session
Bas Steman will sign his book on 9 April from 2.30 pm to 4 pm at Van Someren en ten Bosch, Turfstraat 19.

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