Henri Van Booven

Translated from the original Dutch by Katrien Cokeley Vandegaer

To my mother Johanna van Weel

‘Five young Dutchmen who arrived in Kinchassa at the time of my departure from Brazzaville, were dead on arrival.’

CH. Castellani: ‘Toward the French Nile with the Marchand mission.’

Note from the translator: 

Want to read more? Well this translation is a work in progress. So bear with me, this is an obscure novel, hidden away in the annals of Open Source Dutch literature, and I'm just getting to know it myself. I call dibs on introducing it to the English language world, so I'm launching my translation on this blog: thereisnocrisis.org

'Tropical Woe' is my first go at literary translation, and I chose this work for a number of reasons:
- Cultural significance: I was surprised to read that the Low Lands have their own Heart of Darkness! Joseph Conrad's novel is an integral part of world literature, historical narrative, and contemporary film history. His language resonates in Henri Van Booven's descriptions of the equatorial sun's combustion. They used the exact same word to describe the sensation of its light and heat: "unglowing" summarizes how the burning sun interacts with the air and water of the sky and sea. 
- Historical relevance: Our world is marked by racism: then, at the time of brutal colonial oppression, and now, when we are going through an intense time of decolonization, reconciliation and truth. In order to annihilate structural racism for the benefit of our shared future, we seek reparations for all descendants of survivors and victims of colonialism, genocide, forced removal, chattel slavery, war, police brutality and murder, incarceration, executions, redlining, homelessness, and any other crime against humanity, impacting people of color and the poor.
- Personal interest: From a young age I started to wonder why not all people are able to enjoy life on earth, and I began to wish for an end to pollution and the violence of poverty. Since then, my life has been focused on learning about people and institutions. Certain mechanisms of control create intentional divisions among people and justify the most heinous inhumanity. I prefer humanity over any -ism, always.
- Access: The novel is in the public domain, but not known to the general public. Research on it is scarce, so why not elevate it out of obscurity? It may contribute to our attempts to change the world for the better.

Disclaimer: Born white in Flanders Belgium, I am not out of place to translate these words by a Dutch man. I remain true to Henri's archaic phrasing and sentence structures to reflect the time period and to respect the author's intention, style and experience, but I attempt to find the most contemporary word, for terms and phrases that are no longer suitable today, or just plain repulsive. This includes replacing the n-word with black. Racist stereotypes are still prevalent in white cultures: CALL IT OUT! RESTORE DIGNITY!

Katrien Cokeley Vandegaer, April 28 2021


Footage of the Cup Foods corner store in Minneapolis, Mni Sota Makoce, land where the waters reflect the clouds, is broadcast on screens all over the world. The full worm moon wanes over a murderer’s trial, illuminates memories of public executions, and revives experiences of forced removal.  This re-emergence of darkness at the earth’s surface confronts us now by the reflection of light from above and within, from what’s right in front of us, to our deepest hidden collective histories.  Let this moment teach connection, see the truth in you, and illuminate a brighter day! This unrelenting gruesome cycle of perversion and collective punishment, this history of violence cannot be perpetual!

From earth, electric current and satellite technology enable televised broadcasts that vex the watcher’s eye and capture the world’s attention to reflect back and shed light on this darkness.  Like a searchlight, our eyes are drawn to a specific time and place.  Structural racism is the residual of colonial genocide, it manifests in cold-blooded cops, who take away George’s life, outside of a corner store, on Memorial Day last year:

“Just leave him. Stop talking, stop yelling, it takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to talk. He’s staying put where we got him.”  On the corner of Chicago and 38th, for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, George is dying: “…I can’t breathe…”…I CAN’T BREATHE… resonates throughout space…

The crow flies southwest, about sixty six miles, travelling back to almost one hundred and sixty years, to Mankato, where Abraham Lincoln ordered thirty eight Dakota men to be executed. At the site renamed Reconciliation Park, they sang:

“Many and great, O God, are your work,
Maker of earth and sky;
Your hands have set the heaven with stars;
Your fingers spread the mountains and plains.
See, at your word the waters were formed;
Deep seas obey your voice.
Your will, mysterious and so strong,
Brings growth to all the earth.
Food for our souls and clothing to wear
Are like your cup that blesses and fills.
Provide for us each day of our lives
Sufficient for our needs.
Grant unto us communion with you,
O star-abiding One;
Come unto us and dwell here with us,
With you are found the gifts of life,
Bless us with life that has no end,
Eternal life with you.
That day you came to dwell on the earth,
Bringing us all great joy!
The nations scattered over the world;
To them you gave the light of all life,
O Lord, O Compassionate One,
We offer praise to you.”

Trial transcript: https://www.mncourts.gov/mncourtsgov/media/High-Profile-Cases/27-CR-20-12951-TKL/Exhibit207072020.pdf

Lyrics to the hymn the Dakota 38 sang on the way to the gallows: http://ann-surprise.blogspot.com/2016/11/lyrics-to-hymn-dakota-38-sang-on-way-to.html

Maps and images: Google Images, Google Maps, https://bdotememorymap.org/memory-map/