LOCKDOWN IN AMSTERDAM (Chapter 9)

Lockdown in Amsterdam – Toby Quinn’s Online Corona Novel

CHAPTER 9

My Annus Mirabilis

Time flies when you’re having fun. I’ve said so before. But by golly, folks, is it really 2021 already?

Now I’m sure a lot of you will look back on 2020 as an “annus horribilis”. There was the pandemic, of course, that had us all in its grip. Maybe you lost a loved one to the virus, or fell ill yourself. There was Donald Trump, crashing through the daily news like a bull in a china shop. For the Brits among my readers, there was the additional headache of a looming Brexit. For my fans in Beirut, there was the ammonium nitrate explosion in your harbor, that blew up half your city. My heart goes out to all of you. Honestly it does.

But here’s the thing. Even in the darkest of times, there will always be a few lucky devils who thrive as never before. Take Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, who made a few billion dollars extra off the first few months of the pandemic alone. Take the singer Madonna, whose chutzpah reached record-breaking heights as she lowered herself into a bathtub sprinkled with rose petals to tell the world how nice the virus was for making everybody equal. Take me, Toby Quinn. I hope you won’t hold it against me, folks, but this year has been a veritable “annus mirabilis” for me.

The expression “annus mirabilis” has a fascinating history, by the way. One of its earliest appearances in the English language was as the title of a poem by John Dryden, commemorating a time period in 1665-1666. The first half of the poem lauds the English fleet for a series of naval victories in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (sorry Full o’Bull, and all you other Dutchies out there, but you win some, you lose some!). The second half is dedicated to The Great Fire of London.

Now before you go accusing one of England’s finest poet laureates of callous cynicism or downright pyromania, Dryden honestly believed that God had saved his beloved city from an even crueller fate. Sure, half of London burned down. But that implied that the other half had been spared! In other words, he was simply being an optimist, encouraging his readers always to look on the bright side of life.

And just like I’ve been writing this novel while stranded here in Amsterdam because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dryden wrote his poem in the village of Charlton in North Wiltshire, having fled London during an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Pretty cool, huh? Incidentally, the Great Fire got rid of a whole bunch of rats that had been spreading the disease, so there you go: the bright side of life.

The story doesn’t stop there. In that same fateful year, the plague spread to Cambridge, forcing the university to close its doors. Left with no other choice but to return to his home village and move back in with his mother in her stone cottage, one 23-year-old student, rather than wingeing about missing the stimulating conversations with his professors or the day-to-day camaraderie of his peers, watched an apple falling from a tree and came up with the theory of gravity, inventing calculus while he was at it, along with making important advances in the field of optics and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Thanks to this bright young lad, whose name of course was Isaac Newton, “annus mirabilis” has acquired a more specific meaning: an exceptionally productive year for a creative genius, be it a scientist, an artist, or a writer like me.

Sometimes, a close friendship can inspire two talented individuals to ever greater heights, resulting in a dual annus mirabilis. This was the case in 1794-1795, for the poets Wiliam Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. Remember him? One of the many masterpieces that he wrote in that remarkable year was the freaky, opium-induced visionary poem that I was telling you about in an earlier chapter, inspiring me to the lines:

In Amsterdam did Toby Quinn

A mighty pleasure dome decree

Isn’t it cool how everything falls into place when you’re on a roll? I wonder, though, do you think Full o’ Bull was hoping for a similar dual annus mirabilis by welcoming me into his home? Oh well, at least I’ve kept my end of the bargain.

One last example: 1905. Ring a bell? Hint: E=mc2. Need I say more?

As I look back at my own wondrous year, the knowledge that I’m in such illustrious company adds a cosmic, almost mystical dimension to the experience. And what a year it’s been, folks, in more ways than one!

Bad luck comes in three, according to the saying. But can you blame me for thinking just the opposite, as I watched three heavenly creatures wriggling out of their fancy evening dresses before joining me on the king-sized bed in my room at the Amstel Hotel? Remember them, the three students of Dutch literature whom I had met at the Booga Ball, the day I arrived in Amstedam? Gosh, how time flies!

And remember what brought me to Holland in the first place? I’ve been having so much fun writing Lockdown in Amsterdam, that I myself tend to forget: Wraak van de Optimisten, the Dutch translation of my bestselling novel Revenge of the Optimists. I thought I’d open the present chapter with a picture of its cover, just as a reminder. My thanks go out to Studio Lieke de Kok (what’s in a name) for the awesome design!

Needless to say, 2020 has been a rough year for the book industry, with shops forced to shut their doors, publishing houses tottering on the brink of bankrupcy, and commercially less viable writers like Full o’ Bull being told to take a hike before submitting their next manuscript.

Against this grim backdrop, and considering that my planned tour of the Netherlands and Belgium fell through because of the lockdown, Wraak van de Optimisten didn’t do badly. In fact, it didn’t do badly at all. And you’ll never guess who I have to thank for that: Donald Trump!

The President was doing such a terrific job putting the ideology outlined in my book into practice, that the Dutch press kept calling me to ask me what I thought he would do next. With the added advantage of Americans being in such short supply here in the Netherlands because of all the Covid-19 travel restrictions, I soon became a regular guest on television talk shows.

Now I can almost hear you going: “What? You were on Dutch TV? My God, Toby! Why didn’t you tell us before?”

To which I say: whoa guys, take it easy! We’re not in a courtroom here, with me as the defendant having sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This is a novel. And because I happen to be the one writing it, there’s a shitload of stuff that I haven’t been telling you about, for the simple reason that I didn’t consider it relevant to the plot up till now.

And honestly, when you’ve been on TV as often as I have, at home as well as abroad, it’s not that big of a deal anymore. I realize how blasé this may sound. You should have seen the look on Full o’Bull’s face when I asked him which of the three talk shows that were vying for my attention had worked the best for him in the past.

Some of you may be wondering how it was even possible to get to a TV studio in the middle of a lockdown. But measures vary from country to country, and here in Holland, television productions are evidently regarded as an essential business, on par with supermarkets and drugstores. The show must go on! Minus a live audience, to be sure, and with a bigger table to ensure proper social distancing.

If you’ve been on one Dutch talk show, you’ve been on them all: some four or five guests will be seated around the table, the host interviewing each one in turn for about six or seven minutes, sometimes with the help of a sidekick. But the other guests will also be encouraged to join in. The host will then throw some ethical dilemma into their midst, hoping things will heat up, the ultimate goal being to get everybody angry and talking at the same time.

My role in these debates has been rather modest. Unless I’m the one being interviewed, the conversation at the table will be in Dutch. Although I get fitted with an earphone at the beginning of the show, through which some increasingly frantic interpreter tries to keep me apace with what’s going on, the little that I do manage to pick out will often be about some local issue that doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.

Usually I just turn the damn thing off. It’s way more fun – as well as being more insightful – to observe the various participants without knowing what they’re saying: the pompous windbag (often a fellow writer, I’ve noticed), the shrill upstart, the flustered female guest mansplained yet again, and so forth.

When I hear the host switching to English, I’ll know it’s time to gather my wits, and as all eyes at the table turn to me, I brace myself for the inevitable. Now I’ve been on TV in a whole bunch of places all across Europe, and I’ve had to deal with this phenomenon to a greater or lesser degree wherever I go, but when it comes to schadenfreude at the expense of us poor, innocent, well-meaning Americans, the Dutch are the absolute champions.

So how do I defend the stars and stripes against so much uncalled-for nastiness? Actually, I don’t. Maybe it’s the size of their country, maybe it’s the predictability of their jabs, but I can’t help finding the Dutch disdain for my country kind of… cute.

As they gleefully enumerate the many things that are rotten in the United States of America, I’ll just shake my head despondently and agree with them wholeheartedly, meanwhile throwing them the occasional compliment about their awesome health care system, or their low violent crime rate, or their relaxed attitude towards sex. That last one will always have them beaming with pride. It works every single time. And before you know it, they’ll be eating out of your hand. Here you go, little fella, here’s another compliment for you. Aw.

Mind you, sometimes the rascals become a little too pesky, even for my liking.

On one late-night talk show, the host had invited a side-kick to his table, a dandyish figure sporting suspenders who regarded whatever anybody else at the table was saying with a contemptuous smile. I can’t remember his name, so let’s just call him Wiseguy van Smartass, at the risk of the fashionistas among you accusing me of product placement. For the uninitiated: Wiseguy® happens to be a well-known brand of suspenders.

The host was hearing me out on some recent development back home (had Donald Trump just advised us to drink bleach? Had George Floyd stopped breathing? I honestly can’t remember) when Van Smartass butted in:

“What a fucking mess over in America, isn’t it?”

“Watch your language, there, buddy!” I said with an incredulous laugh.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said, holding up his hands. But I could tell by the twinkles in his eyes how eager he was to add insult to injury. “Maybe we must explain to you that here in Holland we are not as uptight about using the f-word on national television as you folks are over in America.”

“Actually, it wasn’t the f-word that I was objecting to. It was your use of the ‘isn’t it’ construction.”

Because Van Smartass needed the next five minutes to figure that one out, the host was able to conduct the rest of the interview without further incident.

It was well past Full o’ Bull and his wife’s normal bedtime when the studio limousine deposited me on their doorstep, but like proud parents they had stayed up to congratulate me on my brilliant performance. Apparently, my brief altercade with Van Smartass had unleashed a nationwide twitter storm, viewers crediting me with his long overdue comeuppance.

Thanks to my selfless act of heroism, Wraak van de Optimisten came roaring into the top ten, where it has remained ever since.

Rumor has it that Van Smartass was so incensed that he now refuses to take part in any talk show that has me as a guest at the table. Whatever the case may be, I’ve been back to the studio plenty of times, and apparently so has he, but our paths have yet to cross again.

As for my status of national hero, alas, it didn’t take viewers long to realize I was every bit as obnoxious as the fellow I had put in his place, maybe even more so, because at least he was one of them, whereas I was a typically American “obskebber”, one of the worst possible insults in this Calvinist country, meaning “braggart”. That’s okay, though. When you’re an enfant terrible, being hated is part of the fun, as I’m sure Van Smartass himself would agree.

Around Christmas, just like back home, newspapers all across Europe came out with extra thick holiday editions featuring among other things their critics’ favorite books of the year.

Sigrún Jensdottir, my Icelandic publisher, called to congratulate me on Hefnd Bjartsýnismanna being chosen as number one by no less than three of her country’s most revered literary critics.

Laszlo Cyborsky called from Warsaw with a similar message regarding Zemsta Optymistów. Others were to follow.

Not a word from the Van Renkum family, my Dutch publishers, but I guess they’re too busy trying to fight off my lawyers. They still haven’t compensated me for the loss of revenue after my tour fell through, nor have I seen this year’s royalty statements. I’ve been advised not to go into the details, so we’ll leave it at that for now.

Luckily I have access to other sources of information here in Holland: Full o’ Bull and his wife were swamped with calls from friends and family with the news that Wraak van de Optimisten featured prominently in whatever newspaper they had just been reading. And Linda tells me it was the best-selling book in translation of the year, by a mile.

So all in all, 2020 wasn’t a bad year for me. And now it’s 2021. But hang on, folks. Who says an annus, be it “horribilis” or “mirabilis”, necessarily coincides with a calendar year? It ain’t over till it’s over!

That sigh of relief that you heaved when the clock struck twelve on New Year’s Eve, tell me honestly, were you really able to empty the entire contents of your lungs in a single go, or did your throat tighten at some point, as though you wanted to save some air for just in case?

How right your instincts were. How little time it took for some of the fun stuff from 2020 to spill over into 2021.

Take the pandemic. Yes, we have our vaccines, but we’re not out of the woods yet. In fact, experts are warning us that the worst is yet to come before it gets any better.

Take Donald Trump. Yes, he lost the elections and has now vacated the White House, but boy did he raise a stink on January 6, whipping up his fans until they stormed the Capitol. And was that the end of it? It’s too early to tell.

Watching the images of the rioters on CNN with Full o’ Bull and his wife, I was shocked, of course. And appalled? Yeah yeah, that, too. But mostly I was thinking: there they are, the Optimist Army, just as I had envisioned them in my novel. How cool is that!

And it keeps getting better. Just last week, “disturbing” new footage was released, showing a group of Proud Boys marching through the halls of the Capitol singing “if you’re happy and you know it, load your gun,” the final aphorism from my Optimist Manifesto!

Needless to say, my phone has been ringing day and night, all the usual talk shows practically begging me to come to their table. Since the new year, I’ve been turning them all down. The novelty of being on Dutch television has worn off, as has the effect of my appearances on the sales of my book.

I was hoping that the evening curfew recently imposed by the Dutch government to prevent the spread of the new English strain of the virus would put an end to these annnoying calls. As it turns out, there are two notable exemptions to the curfew, besides the obvious ones like being a police officer or a health care worker: you’re allowed to go out after 9:00 p.m. if you need to walk your dog or if you’ve been invited to a talk show. I’m. Not. Kidding.

So when the phone rang for the third time this morning, I was all set to tell the caller to go fuck themselves. A good thing I didn’t. This was a fellow by the name of Hendrik Mastenbroek, who as chairperson of the jury had the honor to inform me that Wraak van de Optimisten was being awarded “Het Morele Kompas” for 2020.

Talk about an “annus mirabilis” spilling over into the new year!

The Moral Compass, awarded annually to a book offering its readers “a sense of direction in these confusing times”, happens to be one of The Netherlands’ most prestigious literary prizes. Previous winners include Salman Rushdie, Michelle Obama and Greta Thunberg. Fine company, once again.

Corona permitting, the award ceremony is to take place on Saturday, March 6, the opening day of this year’s National Book Week, in the Nieuwe Kerk, that big church on Dam Square, here in the heart of Amsterdam. Some or other member of the Dutch royal family (cool!) will be offering me a commemorative 18-karat gold compass (nice!), along with a check for 20,000 euros. Ka-ching!

But not all was fair in the Kingdom of the Moral Compass…

Stammering apologies, Hendrik Mastenbroek now had an awkward matter that he needed to discuss with me. He wished it could have been avoided, but seeing as it was going to be all over the papers tomorrow anyhow, he thought it better that I’d hear it from him personally.

A crisis had been narrowly averted. One of the jury members, a German professor of Kantian ethics at the University of Tilburg by the name of Ute Lechner, had refused to go along with the choice of the others.

Now in any “normal” year, a hung jury would simply have led to the Compass not being awarded, as had been the case a number of times in the past. In fact, such off-years added to the exclusivity of the prize. But not awarding the prize in these difficult times, just when we were all in such desperate need of a boost in morale, would be devastating.

Even so, the professor of Kantian ethics wasn’t budging. Any other book on the short list would have been fine. But to award the prize to a such a puerile, cynical, ethically dubious book as Wraak van de Optimisten would sully the good name of the Moral Compass for years to come!

When one of the other jury members grumbled something about having heard all of this somewhere before, a veiled allusion to the Nazi notion of “degenerate art”, as a German native, Ute Lechner had gone ballistic. How dare he! Over and above her refusal to award me the prize, she now demanded that this despicable person be removed from the jury!

To prevent the conflict from spiralling out of control, they had to call in the help of a morally impeccable heavyweight, an honorary member of the Royal Society of the Moral Compass and one of only a handful of people in the Netherlands to carry the hugely eminent title of Minister of State, a certain Piet Hein Donner.

After an all-nighter of extremely delicate negotiations with all parties involved, Mr. Donner was able to announce that a compromise had been reached. Wraak van de Optimisten was to be awarded the prize, on the condition that Professor Lechner be allowed to voice her misgivings regarding my book in public.

Thus, the regular award ceremony was to be followed by a mini-colloquium on Literature and Morality, focussing on the fundamental question: is it enough for literature to show us who and what we are, or should literature make us better people, too?

Sounds like a barrel full of laughs. Bring it on, Ute!

Poor Full o’ Bull, though. The news of my latest triumph sent the needle on his moral compass spinning. He knew that as a fellow writer he should be congratulating me, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it, that’s how crestfallen he was.

Which brings us to the pièce de resistance of my annus mirabilis: the novel that you are reading right this very minute, Lockdown in Amsterdam. It too, has spilled over into the new year. Yes, there’s a sense that the end of this drama is nigh. Do you feel it, my dear readers? And yet, just like with the pandemic, just like with the political turmoil back in my home country, there is also a sense of foreboding, as though things may still get a whole lot worse before getting any better.

Having been humiliated by a hotshot American writer in the past, Full o’ Bull has indicated he wants to do things differently this time. That sure sounds like a veiled threat, spelling trouble ahead. Or does it?

Linda informs me that there is growing concern among my fans that perhaps it’s nothing quite as juicy as revenge that Full o’Bull is after, but something sappier, like closure, or acceptance. What if he decides to play the “sadder but wiser” card? What if he just says: “It was a mistake to let you stay this long. Now please pack your bags and leave”, and it’s bye-bye, end of story?

I understand your fears, my dear readers. It’s certainly true that at Full o’ Bull’s age, people tend to conserve what little energy they have, choosing their battles ever more carefully and often preferring to shrug things off, in so far as their stiffening shoulders allow for so supple a gesture.

But let me reassure you right here and right now: as long as you are reading a Toby Quinn novel, anticlimax isn’t an option. Not on my watch! Have I ever let you down in the past?

Remember how upset Full o’ Bull was when he discovered that this so-called novel of mine was in fact just a true account of my stay with him and his family in this apartment? And that I likened my choice of sticking to reality rather than using the wings of my imagination to a ladybug crawling over a book and refusing to fly away even after being prodded?

Well, just like I said back then, that doesn’t mean the ladybug and I can’t fly! So if at any point Full o’ Bull threatens to spoil the party by being too reasonable, all we have to do is spread our wings and make up the rest of the story.

Now I can already hear the literary snobs among you grumbling “artifice”, but I’ll make the transition from fact to fiction as smooth as possible. You won’t feel a thing. Trust me, I’m a writer. An award-winning writer.

Speaking of which, I need to pop out and buy a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Maybe two this time. Full o’ Bull needs a lot of cheering up.

But honestly, folks. A badass like me winning the Moral Compass: doesn’t that just kill you?

God, I love this crazy world of ours. And I guess this crazy world loves me, too.

T. Q.

(to be continued….)

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