A detail from the school days of the past leads two authors to books that fan out widely. For Mathijs Deen (1962) his book The borderless river begins. Stories from the realm of the Rhine with the master in the fifth grade of the primary school in Boekelo. During his geography lesson, he pointed out on the map of Europe the Rhine which, if you follow it upstream long enough, “has become so narrow that you can jump over it.”
Deen has ‘never been able to get this image out of his head’, and that is recognizable: on the wall map you see the blue winding line getting smaller and smaller, until you know for sure: that’s where the source is, that’s where the river begins. You can go there. But whether that is the case, that is the question.
Journalist Milo van Bokkum (1994), economics editor at this newspaper, also came up with the idea for his book Grensstreken. Why boundaries are where they are by a moment from his childhood. During a summer holiday he once cycled from Tilburg to a meadow in the municipality of Baarle-Nassau near the border with Belgium. Apparently it was just a meadow, nothing special. But for Van Bokkum this meadow was ‘one of the most interesting meadows in the Netherlands’, because it was Belgian and almost completely surrounded by the Netherlands, only connected to the neighboring country by a small recess.
Van Bokkum admits to suffer from ‘border addiction’ since his secondary school days and Deen has become immensely fascinated by the Rhine, which he considers ‘a character (…) with a life and a death’. Just like in his previous books, including De Wadden (2013) and Over Oudewegen (2018), Deen is a writer who looks for the right experts for his subject: he talks to people involved, including a skipper, a professor in paleo- geography, a skull collector and a diver. This open, interested way of research leads him to surprising insights, for example that it is a mistaken nineteenth-century idea that you can find the origin of the Rhine high in the Alps. Deen describes this find and jump over frozen boulders beautifully, but he is met with a harsh rebuke from Utrecht geoscientist Kim Cohen, who argues: ‘The Rhine has always been there’. Water has always flowed through the Rhine, that has nothing to do with the Alps. The river is more than its bed.
Deen mainly describes the epic proportions of the Rhine, shrouded in the mists of ancient German forests. His Rhine is more than a character, a myth. When he gets on board with a skipper in the Oosterhornhaven in Delfzijl, even there the boundless Rhine water flows.
Van Bokkum also plays with the field of tension between border and borderless. He takes the reader on a world tour along all kinds of borders, from the straight-line drawing board boundaries in a former colony like Africa, where the western rulers simply drew straight lines to usurp power, to the erratic natural boundaries of mountain ridges, rivers, coastlines.
Van Bokkum limits itself exclusively to written sources. He defines the need for borders to allay the fear of the Other, often in combination with the fear of land loss or the threat of economic damage. Conflicts over borders can run high: the author even comes across a document of a total of 6000 pages about the course of several meters of border between Namibia and Botswana. The International Court of Justice in The Hague had to consider it.
Van Bokkum alternates his book in an enthusiastic rhythm of major border wars and minor border incidents, such as the famous story that the Dutch-Belgian border splits the Cultural Center Baarle in two. That was a good thing in 1976: the original edition of the film Turks Fruit was allowed to be shown on the Dutch side, the purified version only in Belgium. A shot was placed on the border in the hall, everyone was happy to see the unexpurgated version, on Dutch territory. This is because border lines such as Baarle, where the meadow is also located, are drawn so chaotically.
The books are clearly in a tradition of some earlier, penetrating border and river books to which the authors do not refer, however. With Donau (1986) the Italian Claudio Magris wrote a philosophical cultural journey through Central Europe and in Langs Borders (2001) he calls himself a ‘border writer’. The border is in the Dutch language area. Along the Edges of the Netherlands (20123) by Enno de Witt, a decisive book for border addicts. The more anecdotal enthusiasm of Van Bokkum – who shoots along borders all over the world – and Deen’s stylistic great efforts prove that borders still appeal to the imagination.
Mathijs Deen: The boundless river. Stories from the Empire of the Rhine. Thomas Rap, 334 pages. €23.99
Milo van Bokkum: Border regions. Why boundaries are where they are. Van Oorschot, 224 pages. € 25
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of October 15, 2021