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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

On the Water

Hans Maarten van den Brink

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To purchase On the Water

Title: On the Water
Author: Hans Maarten van den Brink
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 142 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: On the Water - US
On the Water - UK
On the Water - Canada
Sur l'eau - France
Über das Wasser - Deutschland
  • Dutch title: Over het Water
  • Translated by Paul Vincent

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Our Assessment:

A- : well-written, simple but quite powerful novella

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A+ 17/2/2001 Daniel Topolski
The LA Times . 2/8/2001 Mark Rozzo
New York A- 6/8/2001 Daniel Mendelsohn
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 22/7/2001 Chris Solomon
TLS . 2/2/2001 David Horspool
The Washington Post . 12/8/2001 Carmela Ciuraru
Die Welt A+ 11/11/2000 Elmar Krekeler

  Review Consensus:

  Some think it's absolutely fantastic, others are more lukewarm in their praise.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(R)arely have sport and literature combined so seamlessly to produce such an absorbing and satisfying novel as this small miracle of a book (.....) (I)t is the poetic strength and simplicity of the writing that seduces the reader." - Daniel Topolski, The Guardian

  • "This is an artful meditation on the out-of-time, out-of-body experience of intense training and competition and of the transformations of bodies and souls." - Mark Rozzo, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Like light on water, this novel can be diffuse and elusive -- although the writing's so lovely you don't really mind." - Daniel Mendelsohn, New York

  • "The plot of On the Water (...) seems derivative of Chariots of Fire and countless Hollywood dramas. Yet in Paul Vincent's translation it is nonetheless entertaining, in the way that a fairy tale loses nothing for its predictability. The novel could benefit, however, from better development of a supporting cast." - Chris Solomon, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The arduous sport of rowing is an apt metaphor not only for life but for the ache of memory, which comes forth and retreats like waves. (...) In beautifully vivid writing, van den Brink describes the grace, ecstasy and agony of rowing, the miracle of its teamwork harmony." - Carmela Ciuraru, The Washington Post

  • "Über das Wasser ist eine Novelle, die aus allen Buchstabenzwischenräumen nach diesem Fluss duftet, nach Verlust, den Möglichkeiten der Utopie und des Glücks. Ein Buch auch das schmerzt, melancholisch macht. (...) H. M. van den Brinks Novelle ist perfekt. Sie schwebt. Man muss aber vorsichtig mit ihr umgehen. Zwei Worte zuviel, und sie ist verschwunden." - Elmar Krekeler, 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:

       In On the Water the narrator, Anton, steals through wartime Amsterdam near the close of World War II. It is now a bleak, uncertain, dark place, and even the water, to which he has always been drawn, is black and hopeless. In the opening scene he briefly imagines "what it would be like to fly east in the planes" that crossed overhead, but his life and his escape has always only been found on the water.
       For most of the novel Anton reminisces about the time before the war started, and especially that last summer of 1939, with only a few flashes of the present interspersed. Anton was born on the wrong side of the tracks (or rather the river), to humble parents. Anton's father was a hapless tram company official, who "must have been the only man in the world who did not derive power and authority from wearing a uniform, but instead projected even more anxiety and helplessness."
       The water always fascinated Anton, and the water offers an unlikely escape from his milieu. It is not a true escape, but a respite, because Anton knows his true place, but it offers him a purpose and a goal: Anton convinces his father to join the nearby rowing club, though no one from their side of the river ever aspired to do so. And rowing soon becomes a major focus in his life.
       Inept, initially, he practices with a boat load of other novices. One day a Dr. Alfred Schneiderhahn -- a foreigner, an outsider, but clearly respected -- is introduced. Schneiderhahn selects two of the aspiring rowers: the obviously capable David, from a well-to-do family, and, surprisingly, Anton. They are teamed up as a coxless pair, and from then on train solely under Schneiderhahn.
       Van den Brink describes the slow coming together of the pair to form a rowing-unit very well. It's an old story of achieving sporting success, but if it is well done -- and it is here -- it can still be captivating. Anton's obvious love and feel for the water is particularly well conveyed (though he does seem to read a bit too much into it: "Every day that passes is irreplaceable. That was the message the river gave to me", and so on). The mysterious Schneiderhahn ("Someone who had lost his way like me") remains just a bit too mysterious, but is also a fairly effective background figure.
       Rowing fulfills Anton. In it -- and this athletic coming-together with David -- he finds happiness. He is still largely an outsider, and even their victories don't make them more part of the rowing club, "but rather confirmed our status as exceptions." Still, in rowing he feels at home: "The city gradually became mine and I became part of the whole city."
       There are a few mentions of the times and of events beyond the river, but Anton chooses to remain largely oblivious to them. The reader is far more aware of the impending catastrophe. Anton's only true concern seems to be about where the 1940 Olympics will be held (first it is to be Tokyo, then Helsinki).
       Rarely does it dawn on Anton where he and his country are headed, and he tries to avoid thinking ahead about anything at all:

We rowed forwards, but with our backs to the direction in which we were going. I tried not think of about the future at all, but I wasn't very good at it yet.
       In fact, looking back is all Anton really seems to be able to do. Eventually the pair become excellent rowers, unbeaten in the races they enter as they work towards the final championship race. They have become a lean racing machine, where "there was no difference between alone and together". He and David are as one.
       Events, of course, will shatter this idyll, as the inevitable is about to come. Van den Brink keeps the suspense up, building up to the championship -- and final -- race, and suggesting the personal crises the three outsiders will soon face. Naïve Anton has little sense of what David and Schneiderhahn -- or even he -- will face, and in many ways he is rowing against understanding, as if the mere effort and will could prevent the coming of the doom foreshadowed all about.
       It is a poignant book, and very well presented. Van den Brink writes well, and gets especially the sports aspects down very well. The characters are a bit weaker: Anton isn't very interested in others. His family pretty much disappears from sight, figuring only in a few of the earlier scenes and then fading almost completely from the pages. Schneiderhahn remains too much of a mystery. Anton becomes one with David, but he too remains elusive, more a projection of Anton's than a real character. David -- and the others -- all need more flesh to them.
       Still, van den Brink gets the atmosphere of the times down well (though Anton's blindness to events can be a bit frustrating), and overall it is a strong little novel. Certainly a good, quick read.

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Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Hans Maarten van den Brink was born in 1956. He is editor in chief of VPRO, a Dutch television network.

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