By Emma Garman
The Consul General’s Wife is the second novel from author and screenwriter Aliefka Bijlsma, now available in a sensitive translation from the Dutch by Kate Brown. The sad and tragi-comic tale of an aging diplomat and his downfall, which reverberates through the lives of those around him, The Consul General’s Wife is an astute portrait of universal human foibles, set against the intriguingly unfamiliar backdrop of modern Embassy life. I asked Bijlsma about her inspirations, the challenge of creating an unlikable yet sympathetic protagonist, the perils of immersive research—which for her included negotiating with Brazilian gangsters—and what she’s working on next.
Melchior, your main character, is a fifty-nine-year-old Dutch diplomat stationed in Rio, Brazil. Desperately clinging on to the old paternalistic customs, he's almost willfully oblivious to the fact that the world has progressed. It's a rare and convincing glimpse at a certain kind of diplomatic culture; how did you research it? Or is it a milieu of which you have firsthand knowledge?
It was a combination of research and firsthand knowledge. My father was a diplomat. He was posted (and hence so was I) in various countries around the globe, such as Ghana, Senegal, the Philippines, Russia, the USA, England and so on. I grew up within the diplomatic world. However, for The Consul General's Wife, I still needed to do quite a bit of research. I knew almost everything about the personal effects of life as a diplomat on family and friendships, on your outlook in life. But to get a proper sense of how a Ministry works, including its changing policies and the consequences of that for my character, Melchior, I had to do extensive research. The fact that my father had the contacts made it easier in one way, yet harder in a different way.
By nature, diplomats are quite careful about giving away information, as they're so afraid that openness may backfire. Ultimately, in their world it's all about reputation, status and appearances. But of course I wanted to know all about the bureaucratic dirt, not the façade.
Still, I was lucky to be able to engage with various former ambassadors or consul generals, wander around the Ministry, listen closely to lingo (during lunches) and jargon, study how diplomats speak, think, breathe, and live, what their needs are, dreams and desires and the potential pitfalls.
While in Rio, I was a guest of the real-life Consul General, so I stayed in the (amazing!) residency for a few weeks. It was a unique experience, yet somewhat of a double bind: I was grateful to the people that housed me and helped me, and so this raised a few ethical issues. Sometimes I felt two-faced. Then again, the whole diplomatic world is exactly that: two-faced, even though it certainly has its charm. That old flamboyance serves a purpose, and it’s being hollowed out by today's culture of transparency and integrity. We are giving up on some flair and finesse.
So you experienced the rarefied diplomatic side of the city first hand; how about the “real” Rio?
In my research, I wanted to dive deep into all the other subcultures of Rio, which sometimes had dangerous implications. Once I got lost in a favela ruled by the main gang of Rio, the CV (Commando Vermilho). I was supposed to meet a lady who was working for a foundation and helping street kids. But I went to the wrong favela. The only way out—after a period of them discussing what to do with me over my head—was to accept that one of the key figures of the gang would drive me. All of this was paired with a display of guns and machismo of course. It was an incredibly dangerous situation, as I was told by the Consulate afterward, even though at the time, I actually felt quite safe. I got on well with those gang guys, had a few beers with them. They thought it hysterically funny that a white girl like me was lost there. I wasn't a threat to them as I didn't have a camera with me or notepad or something. Nobody dared enter a favela four years ago, so they kind of took me under their wings, "we'll get you there safe." It was an honor thing.
The author Russell Shorto, in his praise of the novel, compared it to Graham Greene, which I think is apt; I was also reminded of J.M Coetzee. Like Coetzee, you tell a story whose encompassing of historical complexity negates comfortable categories of hero and villain. Even though Melchior is in some ways monstrous—and I don't want to spoil it by alluding to his specific actions, which unfold so suspensefully—he's also pathetic, an anachronism within a system that once rewarded men like him. How challenging was it to create a character who is unlikeable, yet who still elicits our pity?
I am humbled by your mentioning Coetzee. His novel Disgrace is in my opinion one of the greatest pieces of writing about the post-colonial drama that is taking place in today's world. Although Chinuea Achebe's Things Fall Apart is wonderful too. And Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie's work.
But definitely, this was one of my main challenges: to create a character you dislike, yet sympathize with at the same time. I'm not even talking about empathy. It was a steep hill to climb as my protagonist is a man, while I am a woman. There was a generation gap to bridge as well (I was thirty-seven while researching the novel). And indeed, next came the important question—dramatically speaking—of how to give Melchior the necessary duality. In essence, I wanted to convey my personal love and hatred of this male archetype: the narcissist.
So the way I approached it was to create some distance from him. I tend to write “on the skin” and stick very close to my characters' perspectives. But if I were to stay only with Melchior, then readers would only see the world in his naive and self-indulgent fashion. Whereas describing his actions through other characters, having them reflect on him and their lives in light of his presence, was a way to highlight the various flaws and nuances of his personality. There is Leandra, his much younger wife, who suffers the consequences of his actions. And although she is about as self-obsessed as he is, she gains insight, while he doesn't. Then there’s the perspective of the twenty-four-year-old intern, Nikki, who, as the daughter of a diplomat, is very much of Melchior’s world. She sees him for what he is: an aging man who is stuck in the mold of diplomacy and holds on to it for lack of alternatives. In a way, she pities him. Through her and his maid Mercy, we get a chance to see that deep down, he means well.
Leandra is suffering from ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, leaving her practically bed-bound. I found your depiction of poor Leandra's illness fascinating in its own right, but would I be overreaching to read it as symbolic of the fading power of First World imperialism, the decay of the last colonial remnants?
I wanted Leandra's illness to reflect the double bind: the white (wo)man's failure. The confrontation with a world that isn't as controllable or definable as you'd hope it to be, especially when your motivations are questionable. Why do we do good? What are we trying to prove or repair and for whom?
For example, Leandra decides she wants to photograph the young women in the slums. She wants to give them portraits of themselves, they'd like that, she thinks. It'll help them. But isn't she the one wanting something from them, because she wouldn't mind making some prize-winning pictures? On top of it, she doesn't finish the project because she becomes ill. She feels bad about this, guilty. She failed them. Then again, they failed her too by not being what she wanted them to be. All these women wished for was to marry a rich man. Similarly, on a macro-level, the post-colonial European powers aren't finishing off the help they started, or the damages they were hoping to repair. They are withdrawing, slowly. In part, they were disappointed too. All that development funding, where did it go to? Into the pockets of corrupt leaders? What were we thinking? That all of Africa would nod and do exactly was we wanted them to in return for "our help"?
Although your setting is the recent past, nevertheless the history of Dutch colonialism in Brazil is very much felt. Was this the main impetus behind your decision to set the novel in Rio—whose sights and atmosphere are marvelously evoked—rather than another international city such as Paris, where Melchior longs to be posted?
This was one of the main reasons, but there were others. I was born in the Caribbean and have studied the history. I am well tuned into the social and cultural problems of that hemisphere. Also, it is on the tail-side of the slave trade. We shipped so many Africans to that part of the world, enslaved them, dumped them there, and now what? The cultural identity of countries in the New World is still in development, its history is so short, only 500 years old. There's a freshness and exciting tension to that, it can still head so many directions. You can only hope the direction it heads is something new and wholesome, something the rest of the world can learn from. So I wanted to place my story on that side of the world, but in a big city, something gritty, steamy, physical, and urban. Rio!
And yes, Northern Brazil had been Dutch for a while in the seventeenth Century. That aspect made it possible for me to deeply anchor my themes there. My interest in this part of Dutch history comes from having lived in those countries. I was an extra on the stage of post-colonial power structures. I was born in the Caribbean, lived in West Africa (Senegal and Ghana) and now live in Holland. And so I went through the trade triangle in reverse.
So where will your next novel be set?
My next novel is going to be set in Ghana, Fort Kumasi (which was British). I have powerful childhood memories of visiting Elmina Castle on the Ghanaian coast, from which most of the West African slaves were transported to the New World. We’d shamefully read the plaque above the door, written in Dutch. The Dutch held Fort Elmina for over two centuries. Two hundred years! From 1637-1872. After my teens, I started wondering: was the Dutch government seriously hoping to repair the damages in history by financing yet another hospital? Without going to the heart of the problem? I was ashamed too: I was a privileged white girl, attending expensive international schools. I suppose that by writing the novels I write, I’m trying to fix things. Or at least rearrange the facts of my own life, make some sense out of them.
Published Oct 16, 2012 Copyright 2012 Emma Garman