A short story that I think this collection can’t go without is “A Bowl of Spaghetti” (“Een bord met spaghetti” in Dutch) by Adriaan van Dis. It’s a short, funny story that playfully turns the perspective of ‘the other’ around. I first encountered this story at secondary school without any prior knowledge of the author and his background. I never read it again, but it still stays with me to this day. That’s the power of literature.
PhD student, Vrije Universiteit
Muller was a neat gentleman. He always looked as though he came directly from a dry cleaner; spotless trousers with pleats, stiffened raincoat, creaseless blue blazer and his lips squeezed into a smile. No one should be irritated by him. He wanted to make an impeccable impression.
Muller was courteous, he always nodded in agreement when someone made a point, yes if it had to be yes, occasionally a no. A representative shouldn’t stand out, he believed. Most often the people he interacted with didn’t even know whether he was still to come or if he had already gone. The same went for the roadside diner where he ate twice a week, on Monday and Thursday evenings, between seven and eight, when his wife went off to her seminars. He always chose the dish of the day. Today it was spaghetti Bolognese. It had been a busy day for him, lots of clients, many opinions, many orders. Yummy spaghetti, he thought, as long as it’s a lot.
There was a significant queue for the counter where the warm dishes were served. He noticed how the waitresses were already wearing Christmas twigs on their white-papered hats. Muller got anxious of all the shuffling past the humming, refrigerated display cabinets full of salads and deserts. He took off his raincoat and laid it carefully over the arm with which he pushed his tray along the counter’s edge. In his other hand was a smart briefcase and a clumsy, oversized calendar – a corporate gift. He didn’t understand why he dragged that thing inside. His habit of taking valuable possessions from his car – they steal everything these days – wasn’t necessary in this case, as this roadside diner was known for being a safe haven of decency and safety. Where public transport ends, the public selects itself, Muller thought. He enjoyed coming here.
He kindly greeted the girl standing behind the wall of steaming food, but it wasn’t until he mentioned that he could eat for two that she recognized him – this gentleman – and filled up a bowl. Too bad she broke the spaghetti. He enjoyed wrapping those long strings of pasta around his fork and sliding the dripping lump onto his spoon with precision. Muller called this ‘risky dining.’ He always made it his goal to keep his white shirt completely clean, just like he made it his goal to place as many peas on his fork as possible without dropping even one as it made its way to his mouth. He was also skilled at eating soup without letting the drops splash back. Yes, Muller liked to take risks when food was involved. He cut his chicken like a surgeon, and he believed: as long as the cutlery in my hand doesn’t shake, I am healthy and I can face the world.
Now, in paying at the checkout he had to be careful that the overloaded meat sauce in his bowl wouldn’t touch his coat. He pushed his raincoat into his elbow and balanced the tray on his right hand. The bowl didn’t move.
Muller wanted to enjoy this moment without being disturbed. His regular spot was already taken tonight, and so he made his way to the silent wing where it was darker than usual, as the ceiling lights were partly covered with green Christmas decorations. Plenty of room here. Muller put down the bowl, draped his coat over a chair and placed the briefcase and the calendar on the floor, next to the table. He eased into his seat. Oh, silly how, in the hustle of keeping the steaming bowl steady, he forgot to take a napkin, a fork and a spoon. He went back. There even was a line for the cutlery trays, and he had to wait his turn. He pried some extra napkins from the trays, for in the car, and dreamily paced back to his seat. When he returned to his table, he creased the napkins in a sudden shock. A large black man was sitting at his table. Without looking up, the man began to cut the spaghetti with the fork and knife that he had unfolded from his napkin. Eating spaghetti with a knife, Muller thought, how ill-mannered. He gave the man a threatening look, who responded to Muller with indifference, and, smiling, took a tailor-cut bite in his big mouth. My spaghetti, my bowl, went through Muller’s head. Fearing this man might attack him from behind, he didn’t want to walk back to the staff. This string-slicing villain would surely spear him. Muller felt himself become very small. The black man gave him a penetrating look. Tired from his nerves, but externally calm – he’d taught himself this, so that clients would never notice anything about him – he sat down on the chair across from the man. Muller didn’t say a word, he put down his fork on the left, his spoon on the right, and his unfolded napkin in his lap, all in an overly polite manner. The black man observed him in condescension. Wearily he pointed his eyes to the ceiling. Muller was surprised that the white of the eyes of Africans had so many tints of yellow. Then the man stared at him again. It was as if his eyes forced him to join in. Muller didn’t know better than to carefully stick his fork into the bowl across from him, his bowl, actually.
Not as skilled as usual, he rotated his fork in the broken strings. Would this man hit him, or slash his knuckles, because of this? The black man continued to eat quietly. Muller slid the pasta from his fork onto his spoon, and brought it cautiously to his mouth, still looking at the man’s eyes. His hands were trembling slightly. The black man smiled for a moment, and even pushed the bowl forward. It was as though he was encouraging Muller to take some more. Oh, well if he appreciated bad manners, Muller could do more. Without rotating, he took a spoonful of spaghetti and deeply dipped it in the little island of meat sauce. The black man scraped the remaining sauce evenly over the spaghetti. Both continued to eat in silence. Muller didn’t taste a thing. He kept looking around anxiously. Was anyone in this restaurant noticing what was happening?
It’s one thing that these people act as if they live here, but the fact that they invited themselves to eat from his food was too much for Muller. He always weakened the stories of stinking Turks and Africans, always pleaded mutual understanding, not too much of course, they were clients after all. He didn’t understand how he ever could have said one good word about Africans. Was this man even an African? He seemed to wear expensive clothes… probably all stolen. The black man wiped his lips with one of the extra napkins Muller had placed beside himself on the table, and he tried to rub off some of the little red splashes on his shirt.
He cleared his throat and got up. Muller wanted to say something, but didn’t dare to do so from his vulnerable, seated position. Baboon, Muller thought. He followed every move of his uninvited guest. He noticed him grabbing cups, filling them with some coffee, and walking back in his direction. Without saying anything, he pushed one of the cups in Muller’s direction and offered a bag of powdered milk. Even though Muller liked some milk in his coffee, he fearfully shook his head. He felt as if he’d been taken hostage at his own table. Neither did he dare to put some sugar in his coffee, fearing the black man would see how the little spoon in his hand was trembling. He knew that people like these became aggressive if you showed any fear. The black man blew into his coffee, and after his last sip, burped a little. He stood up, buttoned his coat, took his briefcase, his raincoat, shoved his chair back to the table, nodded friendly to Muller and disappeared without saying a word.
The sweat was running over Muller’s back. Eventually he came to himself. He was still alive. No stab wounds, no punch to the jaw, he had handled this wisely. Go home and forget about it, he mumbled to himself. But where was his briefcase, where was his coat? He knew it, that bastard, that arrogant junkie. Muller looked around for the man. Why wasn’t there a guard here, with a pistol, and a cap, and an alarm whistle? While he spied the almost empty dining room, Muller suddenly saw his coat draped over a chair two rows back, and between the legs he saw his briefcase and the calendar.
On the table was a bowl full of spaghetti.
translation by Rick van der Waarden
Published with permission of Adriaan van Dis and Atlas Contact
Adriaan van Dis (the Netherlands, 1946) published his first book, Nathan Sid, in 1983. During the 1980s, he made a legendary Dutch television program on literature, and later he continued to work in television. Van Dis writes books about his travels around the globe, about the history of his family in the Dutch East Indies and uses autobiographical material throughout his work, which was awarded many prizes and is widely read. His most recent work is the short story collection (or novel-in-stories) In het buitengebied (2017).