Windows to Europe



Het Onbestaande Handboek


Saskia de Coster

Saskia de Coster(b. 1976) is an artist, playwright and regular participant in television debates, but above all she the author of a unique literary oeuvre. Her family chronicle We and Me became a bestseller and was nominated for just about every Dutch-language book award there is. The more personal and semi-autobiographical Night Parents is an ode to love and non-biological parenthood. Characteristic of De Coster’s oeuvre are the striking images and profound stories. Most of her novels have been or are being translated.

サスキア・デ・コステル(1976年生まれ)は芸術家、劇作家、テレビの討論番組のレギュラー出演者であると同時に、独特な作風で知られる作家である。家族の歴史を扱った We and Me はベストセラーとなり、オランダ語文学のあらゆる賞にノミネートされた。より私的な半自伝的作品 Night Parents は、愛を、そして血のつながりのない親子関係を賛美した作品。印象的な情景描写と深遠な物語を特徴とするデ・コステルの小説のほとんどが他言語に翻訳されているか、現在翻訳中である。

Saskia de Coster
Translated by Anna Asbury

The Non-existent Handbook

That time when she came across a raw patch where his ear met his head. She wondered in shock who had mistreated him, pulling on his ear, and on her way to A&E the wound turned into flesh-eating bacteria. They could eat their way through a baby at lightning speed, she’d read, and they hurried away as soon as the doctor bent over Saul and prescribed an oily ointment for dry skin.

She doesn’t know anything.

She hesitates over the most obvious things because she’s forgotten what it was like to be a baby herself, she doesn’t know whether an infant falling over from a cross-legged position, like a bowling pin, could end up with lasting brain damage.

She doesn’t know. You don’t learn anything in a year.

The Non-existent Handbook No Mother Would Write (because she has no time), would say that after a year you can draw breath. On average. The phrase that so often surfaces – on average.

The handbook would also say that your child should on average be fifty centimetres tall and have a head circumference of about thirty-five centimetres. That at eight months they should be able to use their finger and thumb as a pincer. Saul couldn’t do that. The handbook says in that case don’t panic. You should immediately embrace deviation from the norm, or at least attempt to tolerate it: above all don’t panic.

When anyone tells her not to panic, she doesn’t hear the negation, all she hears is the word panic. It reminds her of her mother, who once had a panic attack in a lift, while everyone else calmly watched the changing number above the door, the only one to let out a hyperventilating cry: stay calm! Don’t panic, children! We’ll come through this!

Don’t panic! I’ll come through this!

Is that what Saul has been thinking for nine months in his ever shrinking house? That strikes her as the worst, making a house with your body for nine months, a tight fit but completely made to measure, all the facilities the little inhabitant needs. You lovingly build him in, and then, without warning, from one day to the next, he knocks on the door and the little parasite, who has been busily plundering your entire body, demands to be allowed back out, breaking this and that on his way out, and you panic that the exit is too narrow, that he won’t be able to get out and …

Or did Saul not even have time to panic? He was born by C-section because he was breech, cheerfully sitting upright looking out at the world. The C-section had been neatly planned for a week before his due date.

The day before, Juli and Saskia were at home. Juli isn’t made for sitting around, not even when heavily pregnant. She pottered back and forth packing her suitcases. Suddenly Saskia realised, after almost nine months, that their little son was about to stop living in her lover’s tummy and instead live in their house. With them. She realised that she now had a role to take up too. What role precisely remained unclear. A tiny child that they would go to pick up from the hospital the next day, by appointment. She suddenly felt a nesting urge. Saskia began to clean the house like a maniac, degreasing the cooker hood, dusting skirting boards and moving cupboards. Juli caught her vacuuming up petals on the roof terrace.

The day Saul is born the front page of the newspaper announces that the far right has gained another substantial victory in the elections, but tolerance isn’t the same thing as a vote on a ballot paper, Saskia thinks. The outside world shines through the sunny birth suite window and looks down on everyone. A while back in France a mob of a million people took to the streets to protest against homosexual marriage. The people shouted loudly. Their reply to all the journalists’ questions was that every child has a right to a father and a mother. Yes, she smiles, that’s true. I’ll be the father, Juli is clearly the mother. But how do you suddenly become a father figure overnight? And is there a difference between a father with breasts and one without, between a father biologically connected to the child and one not? Don’t panic, she thinks, breaking out in a sweat.

Here they stand, enclosed by these four walls, with a tiny heart, in their arms a little boy with a tiny beating heart, a fresh chick, still smelling of the membranes and water that cradled him for almost nine months, now in their arms.

A brand-new, spotless little body catapulted into the battle of this world, so completely open to all their cares and their quirks, everything they want to pass on in endearing tips, nuggets of wisdom as light as soufflé and authentic as sourdough, jokes to spice up the breakfast cereal for their little chief, it’s all ready, everyone in the queue, who’s first? You, Saul.

But the same doubts that plagued her throughout their journey here remain, questions that can’t just be blown away like fluff in the spring air. How should she tackle this? Has this little boy been handed over to two utterly clueless women? Yep, Saskia is inclined to think. Especially the one watching from the sidelines, who emphatically did not make the child, who hasn’t the fainted idea what she’s doing. Has this little boy been handed over to the intolerant world? Yep, Juli is inclined to think.

Nurses and visitors come and go. When others are present, with growing pride Saskia again launches into the universal declaration of love for the entire universe, up and down the stairs, superlatives about his beauty and diminutives for his cuteness, he’s Juli from top to toe, lacking only her chin and her eloquence. Saul’s chin emerges as his little body unfolds after the nine-month journey, the hours of day and night merge behind closed doors, the nurses and visitors come from outside and bring pieces of the world with them, books featuring field mice in the lead role, gossip magazines, newspapers.


The first night. He’s not yet a day old. Her fingers twitching Saskia continues to check whether her parents have responded to a message that the boy has arrived. Not a word. She spends the entire night on the blood-red sofa, five metres from Juli and their tiny son, tossing and turning. Something is cutting holes in her joy.

Her parents do come, the next day, eight minutes before the end of visiting hours. Juli called them behind Saskia’s back, she admits later. Secretly, touchingly sweet Juli, not saccharin sweet, completely naturally sweet, decisively sweet, honestly sweet, I write that here in the full understanding that it’s a word you should use more sparingly than saffron to avoid everything turning the same colour, Juli called because she heard Saskia crying all night and decided she had to step in. They turn up just as the nurse is about to tend to Juli, so that the ten awkward minutes are spent with a large blanket over Saul at Juli’s naked, censored breast. They don’t catch the slightest glimpse of him, nor do they ask to. Saskia had wanted to show her parents she could do it, play families, she wanted triumph to set the tone; ‘Look, mum and dad, you can think what you like but this little bundle is my child.’ But for the first time she feels the clinical nature of the hospital, the walls closing in on them, her parents feel it too, they’re in a hurry and soon gone, assured of having done their duty.

They stay in hospital a week, cared for like queens. In the middle of spring they discover an irrepressible inner summer. Eating and sleeping and waking up in a new season with a new life. Life in a hospital room: watching a miraculous creature day and night, receiving food, opening a couple of fresh bottles of cava for every new wave of visitors, lying on a sofa bed and leaping up at every little noise that penetrates the night, a cry for milk requires all hens on deck, alert to the alarm bell, day and night. And the women always appear. The little boy needs to recover sufficiently to begin on his journey. Every drop of fatty mother’s milk counts, Saskia has the shock of her life when she breaks off a piece of Saul’s navel while changing him and thinks she’s maimed their son for life; she hears laughter at her panic, laughs with the laughing nurse, laughs with relief along with Juli. After a week in hospital they want to extend their contract, but the bevy of midwives show them the way to the exit, to the outside world, home.

His home. Juli stands, her body shaky, emanating love. They stand, together, on the front doorstep, Saskia wants to stay there for eternity, the warm sun’s rays comprehending everything, stay standing there together and not go in, but in the blink of an eye the moment is past, together they carry him over the threshold, more Maxi-Cosi than baby, more expectation than reality. Suddenly she realises she didn’t see this moment coming, the moment when she would have to conjure up a new role, reinvent herself and bond with her non-biological child. They’ve already reinvented their house in the run-up to Saul. Saskia has halved her studio. A wall has been placed between her secret room, where she could get to work on canvas, with paint and late hours, and the bedroom of the baby, who still had a hundred names back then. Will she be halved herself? Juli rolls naturally into it, after nine months of reinvention. Only when the workmen were installing the wall, somewhat skewed, did Saskia realise what a task it was simply to divide up the home differently. A piece out of her foundation, her room of one’s own, the only space with a door. They laugh at it, now her workshop is upstairs in their open house, she sits in her ivory tower and calls down. Her voice echoes. From now on they share everything.