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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Het recht op terugkeer

Leon de Winter

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Title: Het recht op terugkeer
Author: Leon de Winter
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 462 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Le droit au retour - France
Das Recht auf Rückkehr - Deutschland
Il diritto al ritorno - Italia
  • Het recht op terugkeer has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B- : decent narrative momentum, but falls short in a number of ways

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 29/8/2009 Hannes Hintermeier
NZZ B- 19/11/2009 Philipp Ramer
NRC Handelsblad . 13/6/2008 Arjen Fortuin
Vrij Nederland . 10/6/2008 Jeroen Vullings
Die Welt A 9/8/2009 Hannes Stein
Die Welt . 19/9/2009 Henryk M. Broder

  From the Reviews:
  • "Aber der Roman taugt nicht als Science-Fiction, dazu nimmt er das Genre auf allzu deutliche Weise nicht ernst (...). Das Haus dieses Buches aber hat viele Erzählkammern, nicht alle sind wohlgeordnet. Darin hat Kolportage Platz, wenn auch ohne den ganz großen Spannungszug. Darin stehen politische Referate, die in Leitartikeln besser aufgehoben wären als in der Figurenrede. Nach manchem Schlagloch zieht Leon de Winters routinierter Erzähldiesel den Karren aber doch noch in ein starkes Finale." - Hannes Hintermeier, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Das Recht auf Rückkehr ist ein passables Stück Unterhaltungsliteratur, leidet allerdings etwas unter Längen und mangelnder Stringenz. De Winters Schreibstil ist anschaulich, lebhaft und süffig, oft jedoch auch salopp, ja bisweilen plump. (...) Auch für Effekthascherei und Kitsch hat der Autor ein Faible" - Philipp Ramer, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "De Winter houdt zijn verhaal spannend door eens in de zoveel bladzijden een scène in te bouwen die de lezer eens even goed wakker schudt (.....) Die verteltechniek maakt Het recht op terugkeer tot een spannend boek (...) maar ook tot een kunstmatige roman." - Arjen Fortuin, NRC Handelsblad

  • "Het recht op terugkeer is ideologisch een waarlijk polyfone roman (.....) De vraag is of De Winter dat kan, gezien zijn povere stilistiek. Vorm en inhoud zouden hier samen moeten gaan. Maar geen woord loopt uit de zeer gewone pas, verrast, beklijft -- altijd geeft De Winter mee. Het recht op terugkeer laat mij tweeslachtig achter: hoeveel andere Nederlandse schrijvers komen met zo'n goed bedacht, complex en vitaal verhaal dat je niet weg wilt leggen?" - Jeroen Vullings, Vrij Nederland

  • "Es gelingt Leon de Winter beklemmend gut, die Atmosphäre in diesem scheiternden, diesem belagerten Staat zu schildern (.....) Ein beeindruckender, ein düsterer Roman ist Leon de Winter da gelungen. Manchmal hält man die geballte Düsternis gar nicht mehr aus, aber die Spannung hat den Leser am Nacken gepackt und zwingt ihn, im Text immer weiter zu blättern. De Winter macht literarisch alles richtig" - Hannes Stein, Die Welt

  • "Eine düstere Vision, werden Sie jetzt sagen, Produkt schriftstellerischer Fantasie. Nein, sagt Leon de Winter, eine Realität, mit der wir rechnen müssen. Er denkt das Undenkbare, stellvertretend für uns alle." - Henryk M. Broder, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Het recht op terugkeer ('The right of return') is an odd semi-futuristic semi-thriller. It opens in the year 2024, with the state of Israel having shrunk considerably from its current size and neither (any of) Jerusalem nor Haifa still part of the contiguous strip that remains of the nation. What's left is a heavily fortified and secured but small area, with the (remaining and largely old) population centered around Tel Aviv. Among the little technological progress de Winter imagines (he isn't very creative in this department) are considerably more advanced forms of surveillance capability, from cameras to drones; the rare journey into the unprotected Palestinian-dominated territories requires passing through check-points that are far more heavily secured than contemporary ones.
       It's only a matter of time now, de Winter suggests, before the Palestinians take over completely -- but theirs is presented as a hopeless cause, as their 'overpopulated country offered no work, no future, no hybrid cars.' Beyond a small foray into Palestinian territory in the book's opening pages and such a casual dismissal of the entire population, de Winter doesn't bother much with the Palestinians: they remain a largely unseen and unheard but ominous entity in the background (one of whom will occasionally blow him- or her-self up, especially in the scenes set in earlier years). De Winter's treatment of the Palestinians is offensive -- almost all those mentioned in the novel have no other goal than to kill Jews and try to wipe out Israel --, but in fact his (limited) treatment of them reflects almost complete indifference: for de Winter they are, individually and collectively, literally lowlifes not worthy of bothering with; they simply do not matter -- beyond that one has to pay attention to their propensity for blowing themselves up (and pushing busses off cliffs, etc.) and keep an eye on them in order to prevent that from happening too often.
       The central character of Het recht op terugkeer is Dutch-born Jew Bram Mannheim. (Depending on where he is he is called Bram (the Netherlands), Avi (Israel), or Abe (the US).). His Nobel Prize-winning scientist father left for Israel after the death of his wife and his Nobel Prize win, and gave young Bram -- then just eleven -- the choice of staying in the Netherlands or joining him; worried that he would never meet his father's expectations -- he was not nearly as scientifically inclined -- he stayed in Holland until he finished high school. After that, Bram did come Israel to study, and also became a successful academic, a professor of contemporary history specializing in the Middle East.
       In the prologue, set in 2024, Bram ventures into the Palestinian territories in the hopes of finding information about a young girl who disappeared several years earlier; one of the things he has become obsessed with is children who have disappeared without a trace, and it soon becomes clear why.
       The book proper begins by jumping back to 2004, and throughout the first part (and half) of the novel episodes from every couple of years are presented, until we're back in 2024; the second part of the novel takes place entirely in 2024 (with an epilogue set in 2025).
       In 2004 the thirty-three-year-old Bram gets an offer that's hard to refuse, a teaching position in Princeton. He's married and has a young boy, and when he nearly gets mugged by some young thugs -- who turn out to be Jewish, not Palestinian, as he first thought -- he decides it's time to get out of there and takes up the offer.
       De Winter presents the story fairly effectively, each batch of chapters from a certain year culminating in some dramatic moment -- before abruptly jumping ahead to the next section, a few years later. This artificial tension is quite gripping: de Winter doesn't allow for much anti-climax, and one rushes into the next section to learn what the consequences of the events from the previous one were -- which only slowly become clear. On the other hand, with overuse it also becomes a predictable and rather tired device after a while .....
       While in the United States Bram loses his child, changing his whole life. In almost an instant the boy is simply gone, and Bram becomes obsessed with trying to track down what might have happened to him. Nearly losing his mind, he eventually does not proceed entirely logically, and winds up homeless on the streets of Santa Monica. A good deed eventually goes properly rewarded (thanks, in part, again, to superior surveillance technology), and if not exactly back on his feet Bram does get his life back in a bit of order.
       Back in Israel Bram is also a volunteer first-aid worker. As the years go by his father succumbs to Alzheimer's, and Bram takes care of him as well. (Bram's wife pretty much simply disappears from the picture after their marriage collapses after they lose their son.)
       When a surprising and (relatively) devastating terrorist attack takes place, past and present all begin to come together. The suicide bomber appears to have managed to get through a checkpoint, which is only possible if he had Jewish DNA -- and the thought that one of their own was responsible for such a heinous act threatens to undermine the whole nation. The explanation has, of course, to do with those kids who went missing at a young age -- and soon enough there's even an indication that Bram's beloved son is still alive.
       It's a testament to de Winter's writing ability even in thriller mode that even with the completely nutty resolution he offers (Bram impregnates a woman (who has her own secret) ! Bram adopts a blind kid ! Bram grow a beard and goes undercover ! and much more !) Het recht op terugkeer is readable right through the end. That, for once among all the section-endings, is entirely anti-climactic: de Winter is much more interested in the closely personal than the larger political consequences, and in a novel where so much is grounded in the political and geo-political that doesn't work out ideally. For another thing, he doesn't do all that's personal all that well, either: there's an artificiality to many of the relationships in the novel, even as he more or less lovingly describes how Bram takes care of his old father -- but even that seems a relationship based largely on fictional convenience, and the relationships with the women Bram has are worse (as also seen in his simply wiping Bram's wife out of the story early on).
       The vision de Winter offers of Israel anno 2024 is of some interest -- the aging population, the security measures -- but he's far too lazy to really work it out. So also among the few 'futuristic' bits on offer are the facts that Sean Penn became a US senator and that Putin is still in power in Russia. Not very creative, especially since that really is about the extent of his description of the future world.
       De Winter tries to do a great deal in the novel, but finds relatively little success. Too much hinges on the concept that the very idea that a Jew might do other Jews harm is so unthinkable that the foundations of their very world would be terribly shaken should it come to pass (especially given how this harm comes about). De Winter's reliance on DNA and bloodlines as determining identity (DNA 'proving' who is a Jew) might also strike many as problematic -- that whole pure-bloodlines/racial purity concept, and the defense-of-the-Volk-concept that has too often gone along with it hasn't ever really worked out well, has it ?
       Apparently de Winter also means the book to be a warning about what Israel faces, but his presentation of, let's say, the 'Palestinian problem' isn't even simplistic: he doesn't even bother with it. The danger Israel faces is like some dark, ominous cloud that is slowly eating away at the rump-state of Israel, the cloud's shape and essence beyond description (well, de Winter doesn't bother with one, anyway). This certainly isn't a productive approach, but what's really wrong about it is that it isn't even in any way a useful or critical approach: this is fear-mongering fantasy-fiction without any foundations.
       Terror in Het recht op terugkeer is practically an abstraction: horrific events are described, but without any context; these suicide bombings may well actually be beyond any pale, yet in de Winters's presentation they are seen as nothing more than manifestations of pure evil -- pure evil and nothing else. It's one way of seeing suicide bombers, but it should be obvious that it's not a way of doing much about them: combating 'pure evil' is a much taller (and more destructive) order than trying to address the motives and means behind suicide bombings (which still doesn't have to mean that one accepts their validity; the point is to see that desperation can lead to desperate acts, and to do something to counter, prevent, or alleviate that desperation). But then de Winter seems comfortable tarring with a very broad brush, and Bram's father seems to speak for many of de Winter's characters when he argues that the only way to deal with the murderous thugs is to lash back ten times harder (i.e. also take out ten times as many innocents -- though de Winter doesn't seem all that convinced there are all that many (or any ?) 'innocents' on that 'other' side (and he very much sees everything in terms of two sides, one very, very black, the other all pure white)).
       Meanwhile, however, in this morally confounding mess, Bram is allowed to commit and get away with (entirely unpunished) cold-blooded murder; arguably, the guy had it coming, but this idea of personal vengeance (though Bram kills him for what he did to others) being justifiable and okay is also problematic.
       Odd and ideologically ultimately indefensible, Het recht op terugkeer is a problematic book on many levels and in many regards. De Winter often tells a good story, and some of the episodes are quite gripping. The pacing, with the post-climactic jumps in time, is also very good. But the story also meanders uncertainly: Bram is many figures in one, the incidental figures are often too incidental, and the many coincidences that de Winter relies on are often ridiculous. De Winter tries to imagine a future Israel, but the attempt -- right down to the technological advances he figures will be in place -- is half-hearted at best; indeed, for a futuristic novel it already feels rather dated, as though conceived -- at least in the feel of the places and the technology in use -- a decade or more ago.
       There's quite a bit of material of interest here, but de Winter never completely adequately comes to grips with it. His storytelling-abilities carry him (and the reader) through the nearly five hundred pages, but it's a seriously flawed novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 December 2009

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Het recht op terugkeer: Reviews: Leon de Winter: Other books by Leon de Winter under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Leon de Winter was born in 1954.

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