BOOKS / The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: Lovers going Dutch

The winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Award for December / January is The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Harvill, pounds 6.99). It is the fourth book on the shortlist for the pounds 10,000 annual award, to be announced in May. The judges were Doris Lessing, Jonathan Keates and Robert Winder.

'I knew that room, because I had slept there 20 years ago with another man's wife . . . She was there for revenge, and for that she needed me. Love is the pastime of the bourgeoisie, I had once said, but of course what I meant was the middle classes. And so now I was in love, and thus a member of the same weak, glutinous fraternity of one-track minded automatons I had always claimed to despise. I tried to convince myself that it was passion we were engaged in, but if that were true in her case the passion was certainly not aimed at me, but at her putty-faced husband: a giant built up from slabs of veal, bald, with a permanently set grin, as if he never stopped passing round the biscuits. A teacher of Dutch - well, if you wanted to draw a cartoon of the type you could take him as your model. Teaching children the language they were already hearing in the echo chamber of the womb, long before they were born, and stunting the natural growth of that language with tedious drivel about ordinal numbers, double plurals, split infinitives and prepositional connectives is bad enough, but to look like an underdone cutlet and pontificate about poetry, that's a bit much. And not only did he lay down the law about poetry, he wrote it too. Every few years he would spawn yet another anaemic assembly of messages from the lukewarm provinces of his soul: toothless lines, strings of words casting aimlessly about on the page. If they ever happened to brush against a single line of Horace they would disintegrate without a trace.'

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