LOCKDOWN IN AMSTERDAM – Toby Quinn’s Online Corona Novel
Lockdown is doing funny things to our sense of time. How long have I been cooped up with Full o’ Bull and his family? And when did I arrive in Holland? Was it four weeks ago? Five? And do you remember the general sentiment back then?
Sure, covid-19 was front page news, but the situation seemed under control. No more bat’s meat dumplings, no more whistleblowers being arrested for offending local authorities: never had we in the west been more grateful to the Chinese for having such a repressive regime; human rights were fine and dandy, but draconian measures were now needed to contain the virus, and draconian they were.
Okay, so a couple of cruise ships with a few contaminees on board had managed to slip out of Shanghai harbor just before The Wise Leader’s Great Lockdown, but those were just a bunch of old folks well on their way to a better world anyhow. Then there was that mini-outbreak in Lombardy that had us shaking our heads at those sloppy and corrupt Italian bureaucrats.
But, except for a couple of scientists waving red flags, as scientists will always do, for the rest of us it was business as usual, in my case business class, on the plane from New York to Amsterdam. I had been invited to take part in Holland’s National Book Week, with the launch of the Dutch translation of my novel “Revenge of the Optimists”.
My Dutch publisher Sip van Renkum had organzied a grand tour for me, all across the Netherlands as well as the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, with book signings, radio and television interviews, luncheons with famous Dutch writers and philosophers, followed by more book signings, readings, panel discussions, dinners and evening workshops, the whole shebang.
This was by no means my first visit to the Low Countries. Earlier books of mine had done sensationally well here, bobbing up and down on the bestseller charts for months on end. And following my appearance on a prime time talkshow to discuss the Dutch translation of One-Night Odyssey, more people recognized me on the streets of Amsterdam than they ever had in Manhattan.
Clearly, Sip van Renkum was banking on a similar if not greater success for Revenge of the Optimists. As all writers know, in the cutthroat world of modern publishing, cash cow is king, and man, was I getting the royal treatment. As the very first passenger off the plane, I breezed through customs, and it was Van Renkum himself who was waiting for me in the arrivals hall to drive me into town in his spiffy sportscar. They had booked a lovely suite for me in the Amstel Hotel, where Mick Jagger likes to stay whenever he comes to Amsterdam, as do a host of other celebrities.
I didn’t have much time to freshen up before dinner. Giving my bowtie a quick final tug and my mirror image a frown of approval, I headed downstairs to the ultra-fancy restaurant, where Sip and his team rose to greet me. They were dressed beyond their Sunday best, the men stiff in their formal suits and the women somewhat ill at ease in their evening dresses. After dinner we would all be going to “The Booga Ball”, a black tie event that traditionally kicks off Holland’s National Book Week.
Sip had rounded up the finest men and women of his kingdom to welcome me. There was Lucinda, his editor-in-chief, along with the foreign rights lady whose name I can’t recall. And I finally got to meet Irma van Es, my Dutch translator, a sweet, silver-haired lady and smart as hell, as translators often are. She had consulted me regularly while working on Revenge of the Optimists, explaining to me on several occasions why a certain turn of phrase of mine was particularly brilliant. It’s a shame they aren’t paid more. If publishers are the fat cats of the industry, then translators are its dedicated, hard-working nurses.
Then there was an awkward, younger guy in charge of something or other. It’s funny, I could swear I’ve seen the exact same guy on my book tours through Sweden, Italy and Bulgaria. And finally, no welcoming committee is ever complete without two fresh young interns. Being Dutch, these were very tall, very blond, and quite attractive, although I must confess that for the rest of the evening, I had trouble telling them apart.
Whatever this Booga Ball was, it was a huge deal for my table companions. All through dinner, they couldn’t talk about anything else. Only the crème de la crème of the Dutch literary scene ever received invitations, I was given to understand, prompting an annually recurring buzz all across the country. Which writers would be among the happy few this time?
Once in a while over the years, some disgruntled reject would pluck up the courage to protest against the cruel practice. When would the organizers of the Booga Ball progress beyond the level of eight-year-old schoolgirls whispering to each other about who they were (not!) going to invite to their pajama party? Indeed, some noble souls had tried to organize an alternative booga ball, where all writers were equally welcome. It was not a great success.
I wasn’t surprised. Who wants to go to a Losers’ Ball? Remember what I said in the preface, that unfairness is where the fun begins? Well, the real deal sounded like way more fun! … although maybe not quite as much fun as I initially envisioned, when my translator Irma dispelled any associations I might have had to that old rascal Berlusconi’s bunga bunga parties, explaining to me that “booga” was simply the Dutch word for “books”. Wow. Talk about a buzzkill.
When dinner was done, we took a limo to the Amsterdam City Theater, where the party was to take place. Flanked by the two interns who on Sip’s orders locked their arms into mine, I stepped onto the red carpet leading to the entrance of the theater, to the flashing of cameras and the plaintive calls of countless reporters. But it wasn’t me they were interested in. A guy with a gleaming bald head right in front of us was drawing all the attention together with his gal, and we kept having to stop dead in our tracks for him to cast another one of his verbal alms to the grateful beggars on either side of the carpet.
When we had finally made it into the building, we joined the throngs of partygoers eager to drop off their coats. Most of the people around me were loud, sweaty and old, reminding me of the cringeworthy New Year’s Eve Parties that my mother and stepfather used to throw. Hopefully some younger arrivals would make for more wholesome viewing as the evening progressed.
Sip meanwhile couldn’t stop apologizing on behalf of the “hopelessly provincial” Dutch press for having failed to recognize the real star on the red carpet just now. I kept telling him not to worry about it. He had ordered snails as an appetizer, and the garlic on his breath would have made Dracula cry for his mother.
We now entered what looked like the interior of a three-tiered wedding cake, a cake so richly filled with the crème de la crème of the Dutch literary scene, that it came oozing back out of every nook and cranny, cascading down the stairs to collect in ever-thickening pools on whatever flat surface was available. Who were all these people? And if this was just the crème de la crème, then my God, Holland had to be the singlemost highbrow and culturally refined country in the whole wide world. For all I know, maybe it is.
By the way, even while this massive literary party was going on, the corona virus was already wreaking havoc in the southern provinces of the Netherlands. One shudders to think what would have happened if the Booga Ball had been held one week later. It may have taken several generations for Dutch literature to recover from the blow.
At Sip’s instigation, our group positioned itself as antisocially as possible in a rather narrow hallway, forcing the steady flow of partygoers to squeeze past us. This enabled Sip and his editor-in-chief and foreign rights lady to make a great show of how relaxed they were in the company of an internationally famous writer, taking turns sharing a supposed confidentiality with me and then throwing their heads back with laughter, even when I wasn’t being funny.
Irma the translator stood a little way off, sipping her white wine and watching the crowds file past. The awkward younger fellow in charge of something or other had bent sent off on some sort of errand, while the interns, like two young lionesses put in charge of guarding the pride, turned up their noses and flicked back their hair at anyone who threatened to come too close.
Our little show had been going on for quite some time when it was rudely interrupted by a disturbance off to our right. It was the same bald guy who had hogged all the attention on the red carpet earlier on, now bathed in bright light as he calmly addressed a hoard of television reporters and their cameramen.
“He’s one of Holland’s hottest writers at the moment,” Sip’s editor-in-chief explained to me.
“And boy does he know it,” the foreign-rights lady added.
While Sip and his team were getting more and more worked up about the size of this fellow’s ego and the mediocrity of his books, I found the whole scene rather touching and was tempted to get down on one knee as though I were David Attenborough, describing to his viewers how some bird of paradise puffs up its feathers and hops up and down to attract a mate.
I don’t mean to sound condescending, but here’s the thing: with all due respect to the alpha males and alpha females of the Booga Ball, even if every last one of them can rightfully lay claim to having written nothing but literary masterpieces, most of us will never know.
If you think I’m exaggerating, I challenge you to name a Dutch writer. Other than Full o’ Bull, of course. That would be cheating. You only know him because of me. Just one other Dutch writer besides Full o’ Bull. No? There you go. And, for any Dutchies among my fans, my alternative skill-testing question would be for you to name one Estonian writer. Just one. No? Believe me, that’s how obscure your own country’s writers are to the rest of us on this fair planet of ours. Life’s unfair, I know. But like I keep telling you, that’s where the fun begins.
When baldy and the press were done and had moved on, one of the interns called my attention to a middle-aged couple coming our way arm in arm, or rather, I was instructed to ignore them. It was so-and-so, the notorious critic, and his wife.
“As you can see, everybody avoids him like the plague,” she said with a laugh.
Sure enough, although he looked perfectly harmless to me, there was a marked lull in the conversations wherever he and his wife passed, followed by hostile whispers.
For some reason, the other intern was anxiously signalling to her friend to change the subject, but she seemed not to have noticed.
“If you want to throw beer in his face, be my guest,” she went on, just as the critic let go of his wife’s arm to follow her around our group.
“Me? Why would I want to do that?”
The other intern decided it was time to step in. “I’m sorry, Toby, but he’s that jerk who awarded One-Night Odyssey only one star out of five. We sent you a translation of his review, remember?”
“Oh, right,” I said, nodding slowly.
But could I even remember? Linda, my personal secretary, sifts through all my mail and knows that reviews, whether negative or positive, don’t normally interest me.
“I’m sorry. It must be that darned jetlag. What was the gist of his critique again?”
“He called you ‘just another American brat’,” said the first intern.
“And your novel ‘howlingly superficial’,” said the other.
“Aha. I wouldn’t necessarily dispute either of those statements.”
“No!” my translator Irma, who had been listening in on our conversation all this time, protested. “Don’t say that. It just isn’t true!”
She’s a sweetheart. She really is. If she had been my mother, I would have turned out a much nicer person. I’m sure of it.
“Cheers,” I said, raising my glass. “Here’s to superfi…”
Booga booga! Three heavenly creatures were now coming our way, a redhead in turquoise, a blonde in black, and a brunette in mother-of-pearl. As they came closer, the redhead nudged her friends, mouthing the words “wow, it’s Toby Quinn”, whereupon they all looked in my direction.
I gave them my best I’m-stuck-with-these-goofs-for-now-but-will-catch-up-with-you-later smiles. With a swish and a woosh of their evening dresses they left me behind in a lingering cloud of perfume, leaving me to dream of happier places.
Sip van Renkum was tugging at my sleeve again.
“Yes, what is it?” I snapped at him. I couldn’t help myself.
He had wanted to call my attention to another literary star being interviewed by a television crew, some really old dude with a moustache and flashy shoes, but my little outburst had left him mortified. For a minute I even thought he was going to cry.
Then, out of the blue, he started yelling at the two interns. In Dutch. People turned to stare. The poor girls. Pink blotches were appearing on their faces and throats. From his sweeping gestures it was clear that he wanted them out, out, out of his sight. Even after they had disappeared down the hall and into the crowds, it took his editor-in-chief and foreign rights lady quite some time to calm him down.
“Just a little domestic dispute,” he said to me with a grin, as he mopped the sweat from his forehead. “It happens in the best of families.”
I was still busy processing what had just taken place when a hand landed on my shoulder.
The hand belonged to a sprightly, short-haired woman who was a member of the organizing committee of the Booga Ball, if not the big boss herself. She was so happy to meet me, and so looking forward to tomorrow’s event!
Over the years, I’ve become an expert at cold reading, the technique used by bogus psychics to obtain as much information as possible about the deceased person before seeing him or her in a vision. In the course of our conversation, I learned that I would be travelling to the city of Utrecht tomorrow, where I would participate in a panel discussion “Let’s make books sexy again”.
Apparently, as a spokesman for the younger generation, I had been scripted to take a radical position, as had been detailed in a lengthy e-mail that I received several weeks ago. Citing a shocking study that when given a list of words to associate with “book”, over 50% of people under the age of thirty-five chose “boring”, I would suggest banning the word “book” altogether from next year’s national book week. As a final insult, I would suggest changing the name of the Booga Ball to “The Slow-Read Dance Experience”.
“The more people you piss off, the better,” she chuckled.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“All in good fun, of course.”
“But just to be serious for one moment: don’t you ever worry? About the future of the novel, I mean?”
“What, me worry?”
My allusion to MAD magazine, just recently gone defunct, was lost on her, and hence, so was the irony in my response.
“I wish I could share your optimism,” she said with a happy sigh. “I actually do worry sometimes. When I look at all these wonderful people here at the Booga Ball tonight, drinking, dancing, and making merry as if there’s no tomorrow… sometimes I can’t help wondering: are we all on the Titanic, maybe?”
“The iceberg being…?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
Before I could think of anything even remotely intelligent to say, she squeezed my arm and winked at me. “Hold that thought. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
And with that, she went scampering off to look for the next VIP to welcome to her party.
Meanwhile, Sip’s two interns had made a reappearance, frantically waving their arms and shouting at everyone to get out of the way.
For one mad moment, I thought they would be bringing me my three goddesses, but looming just behind them was a kind of Giant Ant-Creature from a sci-fi movie, its antennae, mandibles, legs and shiny black body parts all with a life of their own. It was the Dutch press, armed with cameras, microphones and lights, and this time, they were headed straight for me.
“And here he is!” one of the reporters cried, poking me in the face with a big furry microphone. “Toby Quinn, the famous young American author, here to promote the Dutch edition of his megabestseller ‘Return of the Optimists’. And, boy oh boy, we could certainly use some optimism in these difficult times!”
I suppose I could have pointed out that it was ‘Revenge’ of the Optimists, not ‘Return’. But I didn’t want to be a party pooper.
“So tell me Toby, how are you enjoying this Booga Ball so far?”
“Oh, I’m having a whale of a time! So many interesting people to meet. And the level of the conversations here… it’s just mind-boggling.”
“Do you have anything like this over in America?”
“What, a party bringing together all of our literary greats? And in such a wonderful, old-world ambience? I wish! Quite frankly, you guys are making me jealous!”
The interviewer and the television crew were beaming, Sip and his team were beaming, except Irma, of course, who just looked at me with a wry smile.
Mission accomplished. I had made an appearance on national television. At long last, Sip and his team loosened their stranglehold over me and I was free to go. And boy did I go. Up the stairs and down the stairs I went, beating a path through the drunken multitudes, in and out of one jampacked hall after another, until I found myself in a large hall one floor up from where my desperate quest had begun.
A live band had taken it upon itself to clear the dance floor. Except for two middle-aged women, the sort who will dance to anything, everybody stood huddled in little groups along the walls of the auditorium, shouting in one another’s ears to make themselves heard above the music.
There I finally found my three heavenly creatures. Not surprisingly, they were not alone. A tall old guy with stringy hair had his arms tightly around both the redhead’s and the blonde’s bare shoulders, while his buddy, a stout little fellow, was trying to get his arm around the brunette’s waist, who kept wriggling herself free.
“Toby!” the redhead waved to me. “Toby Quinn!”
The two old men were none too pleased that they had to let go of their catch to make room for me.
The redhead took care of the introductions. The fat little guy was a well-known newspaper columnist, and his tall friend was a novelist, playwright, critic and essayist, along with a host of other things.
“A cultural centipede, as we say in Dutch,” the blonde elucidated.
She and her two friends were students of Dutch Literature at Amsterdam University.
Apparently, the centipede had been in the middle of reciting an eighteenth-century erotic poem to them.
“From memory?” I said. “Wow. That’s a dying art. Do go on.”
“It is in Old Dutch!” his friend warned me. “And you will not understand a word of that.”
“That’s okay. I’ll just focus on the rhythm of the poem, the melody.”
Gulping for air, the flustered novelist tried several times to pick up where he left off.
“Take your time,” I encouraged him.
That was the final straw. Trembling with rage, he was escorted by his newspaper friend to the bar at the back of the hall.
“Phew. Glad to be rid of those windbags,” the blonde said.
On the brunette’s suggestion, we headed up to the balcony high above the crowd, where the music wasn’t quite so loud and it was easier to carry on a conversation.
The redhead tried to monopolize my attention by discussing New York with me, where she had attended some sort of poetry workshop. Now that she had experienced Manhattan’s vibe, Amsterdam had become too small for her, too provincial, and all her friends’ dreams and aspirations seemed so petty and trivial.
The blonde, who had not been to New York, argued that it is what we make of a place that counts, and that going to a bigger city does not necessarily rid us of our small-town mentality.
The brunette meanwhile exchanged meaningful smiles with me. I had no idea what they meant, but exchange I did.
What a delectable dilemma I had gotten myself into, or should I say trilemma? I wondered how Paris had ever managed to decide whom to give the golden apple.
When the band announced they would be taking a short break, even up on the balcony we could hear the sigh of relief sweeping through the hall. A soundtrack with classic hits was switched on, and bit by bit, the clusters of people lining the walls began to break apart as more and more enthusiasts took to the dance floor.
There is nothing quite like Mick Jagger singing (I can’t get no) Satisfaction to get the older generation on its feet. I suppose the lyrics become increasingly apt as life’s disappointments continue to pile up.
And then, then it was David Bowie’s turn to cast his spell on the multitudes down below. As the tension in his song began to build, so did the tension on the dance floor, phrase upon phrase it kept building, building, until it was almost too much to bear. And then: teedee teedee…
And what an orgasmic release it was, David Bowie’s refrain! Everybody had now hit the dance floor. Absolutely everybody. I even spotted the centipede and his newspaper friend happily waving their arms about. It was quite a spectacle.
“Come on, Starman,” one of the girls said to me.
Another was tugging at my arm.
“Let’s get the hell out of here.”
And so, while Ziggy Stardust let all the children boogie at the Booga Ball, Starman and his three young goddesses took a cab back to his suite at the Amstel Hotel.
(coming up next – Chapter 2: COUSIN JULIA)