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There are just five short stories—each ranging from a couple of pages to half a dozen sides—in this slim chapbook by the accomplished (but little known outside of Dutch-speaking circles) Surinamese-Dutch writer Karin Amatmoekrim, translated by Sarah Timmer Harvey. Published by Strangers Press, this is her first collection of writing to be brought into English, although Amatmoekrim’s Waneer wij samen zijn has also been translated into Indonesian by Meggy Soedjatmiko.
Reconstruction may span just 29 pages total, but it covers a lot of thematic ground—including the concepts of home and identity by way of discrimination, segregation, and migration—in a clear and precise prose which I understand to be characteristic of Amatmoekrim’s work (unfortunately I read neither Dutch nor Indonesian, so I can’t be sure).
‘Where do people belong and who decides that?’ is a key question posed by this chapbook in my mind, especially in ‘Concrete’—which closes with the line: “because concrete is loyal”, a strange concept for me, someone who lives in earthquake-prone Mexico City—‘Jacques d’or’ and ‘Room with a View’. Then there’s ‘The Radical’, about an imagined (but nonetheless real) man called “Walter. Or no, Martin. That suits you better”, which was the story that shocked me the most, its ending turning around to explicitly confront you, the reader, in an unpleasant, deeply uncomfortable, and somewhat upsetting way. Similarly disturbing undercurrents actually run through all of the stories in this collection, to a degree, although rarely are they evoked and addressed quite so directly.
Thankfully, the chaser to ‘The Radical’ comes in the form of the bleak hope conjured up in ‘Reconstruction’. Or should that be bleak despair, depending on who you, the reader, once again identifies with? I don’t know, but each of these tales left me with questions that I’m not sure I’ve quite managed to shake off just yet.
Something that Reconstruction made absolutely apparent to me though is Amatmoekrim’s ability to invoke mood and character with spare, clipped sentences. There’s no talking in circles in this tightly crafted collection, which still retains the ability to pierce you with uncomfortable home truths and observations in a handful of words. Like when she writes of the Black man who’s related to her in whom she sees “history and no future” or how she slips him “banknotes in trustworthy, European money.” As an aside, the line in ‘The Radical’ which spoke of the protagonist having a taste for classics, before obliquely making clear that he’s reading García Márquez as opposed to, say, Austen or Faulkner, was a sliver of delight.
From a country like Suriname, which has so little literature (especially by women and especially contemporary work) in English-language translation, finding Reconstruction felt like a treat and I really recommend this potent little chapbook by one of Suriname’s most prolific contemporary writers.
Buy Reconstruction: Strangers Press
I requested and was sent a review copy of Reconstruction by both Strangers Press and Sarah Timmer Harvey.
About Karin Amatmoekrim
Karin Amatmoekrim (Paramaribo, 1976) is a Surinamese-Dutch writer with Indonesian, Chinese, African, and Native American ancestry. To date, she has half a dozen novels, short stories, and memoir to her name, but Reconstruction is her only work to appear in English.
Other Books by Karin Amatmoekrim: Het knipperleven (Uitgeverij 521, 2004), Wanneer wij samen zijn (Prometheus, 2006), Titus (Prometheus, 2009), Het gym (Prometheus, 2011), De man van veel (Prometheus, 2013), Tenzij de vader (Prometheus, 2016)