31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 8: “The Freeloader” by Nescio (Damion Searls, trans.)

May 8, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Amsterdam Stories

Amsterdam_Stories_NescioNescio’s real name was Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh, a Dutch man who found success in business as the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. Although his work brought him the financial stability required to support a family (he married in his twenties and fathered four daughters), it took a toll on his health; one year after being promoted to director, he suffered a nervous breakdown that required hospitalization. The tensions he felt in his life – between his early idealism and his capitulation in adulthood to the exigencies of capitalism – inform his few works of fiction, written under a pseudonym (which means “I don’t know” in Latin) in order to avoid any professional repercussions at his office job.

Long considered one of the finest – if not the finest – Dutch prose stylists of the 20th century, Nescio’s fiction was unavailable in English translation until 2012, when New York Review Books brought out a selection of the author’s most famous works under the title Amsterdam Stories.

Perhaps his most famous creation is Japi, the eponymous figure in “The Freeloader.” Like the youthful Grönloh, Japi is an idealistic flaneur, someone who walks and sits and observes the world, without caring about the quotidian concerns associated with food, shelter, and earning a living. Somehow, these things seem to come to Japi, often at the expense of the people whose lives he wheedles himself into. (An alternate translation of the story’s title is “The Mooch.”)

“I am nothing and I do nothing,” Japi tells the landscape artist Bavink when the two first meet on a boat from Rotterdam to Amsterdam. Many critics have pointed out the resonance between Japi’s assertion and Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to.” Indeed, Nescio’s character shares attributes (if that is the correct word) in common with Melville’s: both Japi and Bartleby make conscious decisions to absent themselves from the mechanisms of capitalist society and live outside the generally accepted way of doing things.

Japi’s attitude appeals to Bavink’s bohemian tendencies, as does his almost preternatural ability to recall details of physical scenery:

He knew everything along the railroad line from Middleburg to Amsterdam: every field, every ditch, every house, every road, every stand of trees, every patch of heather in Brabant, every switch in the tracks. If you had been traveling for hours in the dark and Japi was stretched out asleep on the seats the whole time and you woke him up and asked “Japi, where are we?” you would just have to wait until he fully woke up and all he had to do was listen to the sound of the train on the tracks and then he’d say, “I think we’re in Etten-Leur.” And he’d be right.

Such feeling for detail would obviously impress an artist, especially a landscape painter like Bavink. But more than this, it is Japi’s entire worldview – the carefree pose that allows him to disavow all worries and concerns – that entices Bavink, who, we are told, “was someone who usually worked hard.”

This easy acceptance of Japi is not initially shared by Bavink’s friends, including the writer Koekebakker. When Japi and Bavink descend on Koekebakker’s modest home, the latter reacts with plain astonishment at Japi’s willingness to help himself to pretty much anything: “Japi sat in my room one night and smoked the cigars sitting on my table for the taking, one after another. My cigars.”

Though the early scenes focus on Bavink’s character and his developing friendship with Japi, the story is actually narrated in the first person by Koekebakker. The famous opening sentence provides a humorous précis of Kokebakker’s attitude toward Japi: “Except for the man who thought Sarphatistraat was the most beautiful place in Europe, I’ve never met anyone more peculiar than the freeloader.” By shifting the focus from Kokebakker speaking in the first person to scenes featuring Bavink and Japi written in the third person, Nescio modulates the psychic distance and forces the reader to constantly reassess her evolving reactions to the title character. There is, after all, something enviable about a figure who can eat and drink extravagantly, help himself to clothes and books and apparently never feel the need to pay for room or board, though Koekebakker remains a constant presence, reeling us in when we become too enamoured with Japi’s indulgences. “I think my soul is too big,” Japi says at one point, and we are liable to interpret this as the confession of a deeply spiritual figure, except for Koekebakker’s immediate rejoinder: “Can you believe it? The sponger!”

Nescio’s prevailing tone is dry comedy, but at the core of “The Freeloader” is a serious examination of the layered tensions that exist between youthful idealism and a world organized along the principles of stultifying bureaucracy. As Joseph O’Neill notes in his introduction to Amsterdam Stories, Grönloh “came of age when the social and existential predicament of the clerical classes was coming under unprecedented literary scrutiny, not least from the clerks themselves. Nescio (b. 1882) was a contemporary of Franz Kafka (b. 1882) and Robert Walser (b. 1878).”

Bavink and Koekebakker earn their meagre livings through creative activity; in the world of “The Freeloader” there is nothing more threatening to a man’s spiritual well-being than office work. If there were any doubt about that, Japi himself recognizes that he cannot continue going through life prevailing upon the largesse of others and retreating back to his father with his tail between his legs when he finds himself unable to beg or borrow his necessities. He secures an office job, which renders him virtually unrecognizable to his artist friend: “Bavink saw him sitting on the fourth floor of some office building. He was sitting at the window, working, and the place was brightly lit. Bavink went upstairs. Japi was alone and very busy. Bavink couldn’t get anything out of him – he just kept working and hardly said a thing.”

The anonymous generality of “some office building” stands in stark contrast to the lush specificity in the descriptions of the way Japi once viewed the Dutch countryside, and Japi’s silence is diametrically opposed to his former easygoing loquacity. “Japi turned into a hard worker,” we are told, and as a result his company sends him to Africa, where he becomes deathly ill. The explicit connection between office work and illness is extended in the final scene, which alludes to the erstwhile freeloader’s tragic end.

As a businessman himself, Nescio was aware at first hand of capitalism’s many contradictions and compromises; as a jaded adult casting his eye back on the unsullied optimism of youth, he is able to dramatize the stifling regret and spiritual despondency inherent in the drudgery of daily toil. There is, Nescio recognizes, a painful irony in the idea of earning a living.

In the final stages of the story, having realized that his life as an office worker is as unsustainable as was his freeloading, Japi indulges in a poignant reverie about a bridge that passes over running water, a reverie that resounds uncomfortably with anyone who has given in to the logic of capitalism:

Thousands of worriers who saw that bridge are dead now. And still, it’s only been there a short time. The water there has been flowing for much, much longer. And there was a time when the water didn’t flow there. That time was even longer, much longer. The worriers have died by the hundreds and hundreds of millions. Who remembers them now? And how many more are going to die after them? They just worry away until God gathers them up. And you’d think God was doing them a favor when he suddenly wiped them away. But God knows better than you or me. All they want to do is fret, and struggle, and keep on struggling. And meanwhile the sun rises, the sun sets, the river there flows to the west and keeps flowing until that too will come to an end.


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