Marente de Moor (b. 1972) worked as a correspondent in Saint Petersburg for a number of years and wrote a book on her experiences, Peterburgse vertellingen (Petersburg Stories), which was published in 1999. She made a successful debut as a novelist in 2007 with De overtreder (The Transgressor); the German translation of which, Amsterdam und zurück, was well received there too. For her second novel, De Nederlandse maagd (‘The Dutch Maiden’, 2010) De Moor was awarded the AKO Literature Prize 2011.
The greater scope of the novel covers the uncertainty and tensions preceding the Second World War.
In the summer of 1936, Dutch doctor Jacq sends his eighteen-year-old daughter Janna to stay with Egon von Bötticher, a German he befriended as a young man. This aristocratic fencing master, who is to help Janna perfect her own fencing skills, whiles away his days on a country estate, where he organizes the forbidden Mensur for students: a duel in which participants inflict visible injuries on each other as a sign of courage. Egon is an enigmatic figure, as attractive and irresist¬ible as Heathcliff, and Janna inevitably falls for him.
However, De Nederlandse maagd is much more than just a story about love and the loss of innocence. A new, unfamiliar world opens up for Janna, full of riddles about the exact nature of the relationship between her father and Egon. The men met during World War I, in an era that has gone forever now that the Nazis are on the rise. Janna’s initiation into the adult world is a contradictory, confusing experience. The aristocratic code of honour, with its notions of courage and heroism, has proved futile, and an era of barbarism is dawning with the arrival of the Nazis. Through Janna’s experiences, De Moor evokes the unsettled atmosphere of an era as a major historical shift occurs, vividly portraying the uncertainty and tensions that preceded World War II. As Janna reflects, when she returns to the Netherlands at the end of the book: “I could no longer return to the past. This had been a one-way journey.”
You might say that von Bötticher was disfigured, but after a week I no longer noticed his scar. How quickly one adjusts to outward flaws. Even the horribly misshapen can be lucky in love, if they find someone who from the start attaches no importance to symmetry. Most people, however, have the tendency, in defiance of nature, to divide things into halves that they expect to be mirror images.
Egon von Bötticher was handsome, it was his scar that was ugly: a messy wound, inflicted with a blunt weapon by an unsteady hand. Because I had never been warned, he first encountered me as a frightened girl. I was 18 and much too warmly dressed when I alighted from the train after my first trip across the border. Maastricht-Aachen, no distance at all. My father had seen me off. I can still picture him standing at the window of my railway carriage, surprisingly small and thin, the columns of steam rising behind his back. He gave an odd jump when the conductor struck two hammer-blows, the signal to release the brakes. On the next track over, red wagons carrying coal from the mines were followed by a line of bellowing cattle trucks, and amid the hullabaloo my father gradually dwindled until he disappeared around the curve. Don’t ask questions now, just go. During his monologue, one evening after dinner, he’d left no pause for breath. He spoke of an old friend, once a good friend, still a good maître d’armes. Bon, in all honesty, we knew I had to seize this opportunity to achieve something as an athlete – unless I preferred to become a housemaid? Well, see it as a holiday then, a fortnight of fencing in the scenic Rhineland.
Between the two stations lay 40 kilometres, between the two old friends 20 years. On the platform in Aachen, von Bötticher was looking the other way. He knew I would come to him, he was that kind of man. And he was right: I understood that he must be the suntanned giant in the cream-coloured homburg. He wore no suit to match the hat, just a worsted tennis shirt and vaguely nautical trousers with a wide waistband. Very fashionable. And there I was, the daughter, in a patched-up pinafore. When he turned his torn cheek to face me, I backed away. The savage flesh had paled over the years but was still pink. My shocked expression probably bored him, it must have been all too familiar a response. His eyes drifted down to my chest. I clutched at my locket, to hide what is hardly visible anyway in a dress like that.