Novels to better understand the Dutch

Getting to know a new culture can be difficult, especially when there is a language barrier. I moved to Holland five years ago and even if I have taken lessons and try my best to speak Dutch on every available occasion, my Dutch is still not completely fluent. However, I have found that reading Dutch novels is a great way to better understand the Dutch.

Below is a very personal list of some Dutch novels I have learned to love in the past five years and which have helped me to better understand Dutch people.

Jip en Janneke. By Annie M.G. Schmidt

I first meet Jip and Janneke during my Dutch lessons and in the beginning,  I found the mischievous friends quite boring but with time I learned to really enjoy their simple adventures.

The two friends’ stories, iconically illustrated by Fieb Westendorp, were originally published as independent stories in the Dutch Newspaper Het Parool. There are various English translations but only the latest one by David Colmer uses the characters’ original names.

The stories were written in the 50s and are based on the author’s son experiences growing up. Therefore, some of the situations and the storylines are a bit dated. However, the simple language used in the books make it a perfect choice to try and read in Dutch.

The discovery of heaven. By Harry Mulisch

Published in 1992 it is considered one of the masterpieces of modern Dutch literature and was voted best book in the Dutch language in a 2007 poll among the readers of the Dutch paper, NRC Handelsblad.

The novel tells the story of Ada, Onno and Max who unknowingly are key pieces in the realization of a complex plan, orchestrated by angels, whose goal is the recovery of the fundamental proof of the link between humankind and divinity.

The book has been translated into several languages and was adapted into a movie starring Stephen Fry in 2001.

The Dinner. By Herman Koch

The dinner is about four parents whose loyalty to their children is put to the test when it turns out that they have committed a crime. During a four-course dinner in an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant, the characters are faced with questions that challenge their middle-class life and set of beliefs.

Herman Koch’s bestseller is probably the best-known Dutch book of all times and has been translated into 33 languages and adapted into 3 films.

Inspector DeKok Series. By Appie Baantjer

This series of detective novels about police inspector De Cock (translated as DeKok in the English versions of the novels) and his partner, Sergeant Vledder. The name of the main character means “cook” in Dutch but has an unusual spelling that becomes a recurring joke every time the inspector has to spell it out.

Appie Baantjer wrote 70 De Cock novels between 1964 and 2008 of which 23 have been published in English.

Obviously the above is a very small and biased sample of what Dutch literature has to offer. Are you familiar with Dutch novels? What are your favourite Dutch books?

Let us know in the comments!

Lucas Amaro García
2 replies
  1. Guillermo
    Guillermo says:

    Excellent article! Indeed books are a great way of getting to know a different culture from one’s own.
    I’d reccommend ‘The Following Story’ by Ces Noteboom, a nice dream-like and poetic short novel that gave me a new angle over the Dutch. I didn’t expect someone from this practical and direct culture to write a book like this one.

    • Lucas Amaro
      Lucas Amaro says:

      Thanks for the feedback and the recommendation, Guillermo. I have not read ‘The Following Story’, but will add it to my “to-read-list”.

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