maandag 11 juli 2016

Talking shit with Komrij

Dertien jaar geleden alweer mocht ik voor de toen nog niet wijlen Amsterdam Weekly de toen eveneens nog niet wijlen Gerrit Komrij interviewen over zijn poepboek. Als kop suggereerde ik 'Vlakspoelers en diepspoelers', maar de redactie koos voor 'Talking shit with Komrij' met als onderkop 'Award-winning author digs into toilets'.

Encyclopedie van de stront
It’s not often that you have the opportunity to talk to one of your favourite writers. Therefore it isn’t that strange altogether that the reporter is a wee bit nervous, sitting in the garden of publishing house De Bezige Bij near Museumplein, where he’s awaiting the arrival of Gerrit Komrij. Komrij (1944)  has been a formidable force in Dutch language literature for almost four decades, winning most of the major awards.

Having covered about every literary area as a poet, prosaist, critic, essayist, playwright, translator, anthologist and polemist, he is a genuine intellectual, to put it briefly, whereas the reporter is merely intelligent, however only on days with a favourable wind direction. But then again, Komrij has just written this book about shit, so why worry?

In Komrij’s Kakafonie – Encyclopedie van de Stront (Encyclopedia of Shit), he has gathered scatological texts - writings about feces – from as far back as the ancient Greek to modern day literature, the focal point being contemporary Dutch and Flemish writings. In a splendid layout by Piet Schreuders with many reproductions from Komrij’s own scatological collection, the book deals with shit and related subjects in chapters like Body (The Arse), Act (Shitting), Movement (The Fart), Habitat (The Sanitary Fittings) and Lifestyle (The Lovers).

Don't drag your turd around, children

But why would anyone want to write a book about shit? “Because it didn’t exist in the Dutch language”, says Komrij, who turns out to be a most amiable conversation partner, much to the reporter’s relief. “I have always been very curious about scatology. When I read back the first interview I gave, back in 1968, I already announced this book for the next year. You know, there are so many cookbooks, but hardly any about the second part of the digesting process. Mind you, I am only interested in writings about shit, not in shit itself. Seeing a dog’s turd is enough to make me vomit somewhat.”

Komrij, who has been living in Portugal since 1984, has build up a valuable collection of about 150 scatological books; fourty of the rarest specimens from the sixteenth till nineteenth century are momentarily on display in a small exhibition at De Slegte antiquarian bookshop in Kalverstraat. Komrij says he finds most scatological books when he’s on the prowl for additions to his collection of older erotica. They’re hard to find though, because widows of scatology collectors have destroyed a lot, after having found out about their late husbands' peculiar interests. “For many people shit is still a taboo. And in a way the taboo has a function. You have to taboo it for children at a young age, otherwise they will drag their turd about and things will get rather messy.”

In the preface of Kakafonie Komrij states that ‘we are hypocritical when it comes to shit. Shit is shameful, but everyone roars with laughter about farts. This book levels out the last threshold of the moralists. The last taboo.’ In NRC Handelsblad critic Arjen Fortuin said that he doubts if shit is still a taboo, given the fact that so many - medical – books have been written about it. Besides, the index of Kakafonie reads as a who is who of two and a half millennia of – mainly European - literature. Komrij chuckles: “Well, you have to put something extreme in a preface. It gives the critics something to write about.” He claims he worries about a bad review for ‘about fifteen minutes. Certainly not any longer than that.’

Gerrit Komrij

Purple with white spots should worry you

The author elaborates on why he wrote the book. “A great deal of the material is very humorous, for instance the bits about constipation or farting. Take Mozart. We know from his correspondence he was really into farting. The scenes in the movie Amadeus where he’s giggling about farts are based on facts. But it’s not all about having a laugh. The way people deal with shit, and how they talk about it, tells a lot about where they stand morally or religiously.”
Not only Mozart was into farting.

Kakafonie describes how at the end of the nineteenth century a man named Joseph Pujol made a very decent living as Le Pétomane, a professional farter. He did shows in the famous club Moulin Rouge, where he smoked a cigarette through a tube attached to his southern entrance, letting the smoke escape through the northern one. On a children’s flute he played tunes, using his constrictor. His rectum bought him and his family a villa with servants. In another section of the book, American author Ethel Portnoy expands on European toilets; she mentions a typical Dutch phenomenon: the vlakspoeler (platform toilet). Komrij says, amusedly, he doesn’t have a clue as to why the Dutch seem to be so fond of inspecting their stool before flushing it towards the ocean. “Maybe it has something to do with reassuring yourself by having a quick check. If you see the product doesn’t have the usual brown color, but purple with white spots instead, you ought to be seriously worried. If you would be using a diepspoeler (standard W.C. pan without platform), you might have had purple turds with white spots for weeks without knowing it.”

In one of his own contributions Komrij writes that a human being is nothing more than a ‘bag of shit’, and as a critic, he ruthlessly runs reputations into the ground. Is Komrij a misanthrope? He laughs. “No, I’m not. I am being paid to grumble. For a while I have tried to write positive reviews. That resulted not only in awful prose, but has cost me friendships. People said I had changed and thought I had gone mild, or, worse, was growing demented. And I was only 35 at the time.”

Gerrit Komrij, Komrij’s Kakafonie, De Bezige Bij

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