J.J. Voskuil: Das Büro 5

The more things change, the more things remain the same: This is particularly true for Dutch author J.J.Voskuil’s monumental novel of office life, Het Bureau (“The Office”) of which this is the fifth. It brings us and our protagonist Maarten into the 80s, where things supposedly change: money is becoming scarce and financial cuts loom over all public institutions. There are even persistent rumours of the newly renamed A.P. Beerta Institute being shut down and you’d expect the Institute’s employees to roll up their sleeves and start working on preventing that.

Of course, you’d be completely wrong in that assumption (and you shouldn’t really be surprised about ít at this stage); instead of taking action, everyone just loafs around as they always did, calls in sick for the most ludicrous pretexts or simply refuses to do the work given to them. The only minor change is that the intrigues and the backstabbing become even fiercer now than they were before, as everyone is desperately scrambling for a piece of the increasingly smaller cake.

Und auch Wehmütigkeit (En ook weemoedigheid in the Dutch original, in English maybe something like “And also Wistfulness”) is by far the longest installment of Het Bureau so far (1200 pages in the German translation), but like its predecessors it is an easy, compelling read and the pages just fly by, even as nothing at all happens in them. Het Bureau, and this fifth volume in particular, is an excellent example why literature is something that needs to be experienced, and why even the best summary or the most insightful analysis will never do it justice. You can summarize all of the many thousand pages of Voskuil’s novel in one sentence, which would go something like “Office life is boring, nothing ever happens.” But to know what the novel really is like you will have to let this boredom unfold itself in and through the act of reading, will have to expose yourself to it and let it wash over you. Which is not all an unpleasant experience, like in the previous volumes Het Bureau’s boredom remains enigmatically entertaining, to the point where “Never has being bored been so much fun” might almost serve as the novel’s motto.

After four previous volumes (and one really should treat this as one long volume and start with the first installment), readers will be intimately familiar not just with Maarten Koning and his workplace but also with all of his colleagues and their quirks, not to mention his very outspoken wife, to the point where they’ll be able to predict quite precisely what is going to happen the moment any given scene starts because they have seen the same thing acted out many, many times before. With any other novel, one would suspect this to be incredibly tedious, but in Het Bureau it actually turns out to have a comical effect: every well-known eccentricity of a character, every repetition of a routine situation becomes a running gag, causing if not outright laughter then at least a knowing smile and possibly the occasional chuckle, and overall making this the funniest volume of the novel yet. By precisely the same virtue, however, it is also the saddest, because eventually there will dawn the realisation that for Maarten and his colleagues to be caught in this eternal recurrence of the always-identical is actually very depressing, its particular circle of hell. There is, however, a faint light at the end of the tunnel, for Maarten at least, as his retirement is only a couple of years ahead, something he is becoming increasingly conscious of. I am having a hunch that things may not be going as smoothly for him, but I will have to wait until the sixth and penultimate volume is released in German translation which is scheduled for May 2017.


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