An evening with Adriaan van Dis

When I was growing up in the 1980’s in Holland I used to watch the literary talk show Hier is… Adriaan van Dis. That’s probably what made Adriaan van Dis quite famous, but he is much more than just a TV host, because he is actually one of Holland’s most famous writers (both novels and poetry). Over the years I read most of his books, with themes that are mainly related to his personal life, such as his families Indonesian roots, his homosexuality and his travels all over the world. Most of his novels are easy to read and quite witty – even though many of his themes are relatively heavy. He plays with words and combines them in innovative ways, sometimes even inventing whole new words.

So when I heard a few weeks ago that Adriaan van Dis would give a talk in Shanghai this week, I immediately signed up for it. I looked forward to hearing him speak about his life as a writer and he didn’t disappoint me. Because many Dutch people live in Hongqiao, the event took place there. Good for me, it was literally a stone’s throw from my house in a nice coffee bar / restaurant just off Hongmei Lu. About 80 people turned up for the event, a lot more than I had expected. I saw a lot of Dutch acquaintances that I had not met for a while (some I had not seen for years actually), and because the event only started at 8:45 PM instead of the planned 8 PM, I had a lot of time to catch up with old friends and get to know new people.

One of Adriaan van Dis’ first books described a trip to China in 1986. It was titled ‘Een barbaar in China’, literally meaning ‘A barbarian in China’. I reread the book on the plane from Holland to China last week, it’s a short novel that you can read in 2-3 hours. During his 1986 trip he traveled along the Silk Route and spent about 6 weeks in China. Living in contemporary China you don’t recognize the China that he describes. And the opposite happened to him: he was in China for the first time in over 20 years, and he of also did not recognize the country anymore. He seemed to be impressed by Shanghai, making a rhyme on the way from the airport to the city along the lines of Shanghai high high high and Shanghai buy buy buy, upon seeing only skycrapers and shopping malls.

‘Een barbaar in China’ was of course a topic during the evening, but he mainly talked about his latest book De Wandelaar (The Walker), in which he describes the daily walks of a Dutch person living in Paris with his dog. Adriaan van Dis has been living in Paris for many years and makes daily long walks on his doctor’s request, so the book is based on his own experiences, showing the darker side of Paris that most tourist never get to see. Quite interesting to hear, especially because I had just started reading his book. He also talked about his upcoming book about South-Africa, that he is currently writing. Adriaan van Dis studied South-African language and literature (Afrikaans) and he revealed that he had even been trained in Paris in the early 1970’s to infiltrate in South-Africa to support the ANC (he never used his training though). Based on what he told the audience the book should be an interesting read as well.

The evening ended around 11 PM. I enjoyed hearing Adriaan van Dis speak, he is very eloquent and has a very big knowledge about all kinds of topics (especially literature and politics). I assume that next to writing and walking around Paris, he spends a lot of time reading magazines and newspapers. During the evening I decided to read all of his books that I did not have the chance to read yet, including some of his poetry. He read some of his poems and they were quite impressive – even more so because he explained the background and because he read them himself. It was an evening to remember, thanks to the Dutch Association in Shanghai for organizing this!

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  1. M, again I'm shocked that your van Dis post didn't get as much traction as it rightfully should have! One of the more meaty posts of yours in the past couple of days, and no one comments…what a pity…

    Yes, I believe The Netherlands has a few guys like this who are masterful in their ability to make potentially dry-sounding journalist narratives read like page-turning potboilers. There's one who has a bit of a rep as a muckracker — I'm going to google his name now — who wrote about Mo B. and the whole van Gogh murder. I didn't agree with many of his premises about immigration to Holland nor his views about newcomers to cities like Rotterdam but it was quite a read and I loved it. (Just googled: — his name is Ian Buruma).

    Then there's another badboy doorstopper of a book I read and fell in love with a couple of years back by another Dutch author who travelled the breadth of Europe — from Cork to Vladivostok — in order to really understand what Europe means to Europeans…just googled, it was called IN EUROPE ( by the masterful Geert Mak. Now that, my friend, is a book of books.

    There's something about being from a liberal, population-dense, innovative, sea-faring nation which ignites the imaginations of those thrust out into the world.

    I haven't even gotten into the clever opinion spinning and punditry of Radio NL's Thijs Westerbeek. He doesn't work at the station any longer, but I used to be a near-fervent listener circa. 2000. I wonder where he ended up…that mad has cojones the size of cannon-balls. Bless him!

  2. I am curious about the book "Een barbaar in China" but as far as I see there is no English edition of this book.. Or is there?

  3. Hi Marc,

    I have been reading the work of van Dis in Dutch by means of e-books since I live in the U.S. His latest novel is actually Tikkop, which is set in South Africa of today. It is available as e-book on This is where I obtained it and I enjoyed it.

  4. Hi Marc,

    I have been reading the work of van Dis in Dutch by means of e-books since I live in the U.S. His latest novel is actually Tikkop, which is set in South Africa of today. It is available as e-book on This is where I obtained it and I enjoyed it.