25 May 2011

Book Review: King of Tuzla by Arnold Jansen op de Haar

Title: King of Tuzla

Author: Arnold Jansen op de Haar
Publisher: Holland Park Press
ISBN: 978-1-907320-06-4
198 pages
Genre: Fiction
Dutch to English translation by Paul Vincent
Review copy provided by the publisher

King of Tuzla is a fictional account of a commanding officer of a company of Dutch Grenadiers, deployed to Bosnia, as part of the UN. The story is based on real events and drawn from the author's personal experience with the Grenadier Guards. Arnold Jansen op de Haar was the commanding officer of the unit that secured Tuzla airbase before the arrival of UN aid in 1994.

The protagonist in King of Tuzla is Captain Tijmen Klein Gildekamp, known as the "King" who as the commanding officer of Alpha Company, the elite unit (the first "red berets") of the Dutch Grenadiers, is sent to Bosnia to assist the UN.

Tijmen is proud of his men and pleased to hear they will be sent to Bosnia because he is keen to see some action:

Tijmen felt as if he were being slowly sucked towards danger. He felt a kind of exhilarating fear. Thank God he was no longer somewhere on the periphery of society, but where it was all happening: in the spotlight. Action at last.

However, as they progress through the war-ravaged landscape and Tijmen witnesses at first hand, the full horrors of the conflict, he realizes he just wants to be a good soldier and bring all his men back.

The reader sees the war in Bosnia through Tijmen's eyes, as he relates the various incidents he's involved in, first as a fresh young officer who is excited about seeing action but then gradually in a more dispassionate voice, as the reality of war hits the weary, disilluisioned officer.

It becomes clear towards the end of the book that the diary Tijmen writes in every evening is how he is finally able to reveal the full horrors of everything that he and his battalion had witnessed. He observes how the people living in a war-zone try to cope under such horrific circumstances, and how war affects everyone, soldiers as well as civilians.

The story makes for a compelling read although the way the details are related can be a bit difficult to follow sometimes because the storyline jumps around a lot and there isn't always a smooth transition from one incident to the next one.

King of Tuzla is a thought-provoking story about the conflict in Bosnia. The author uses beautiful prose (he became a full time poet after leaving the Grenadier Guards) to create a vivid feeling of the time and place, and an intense emotional narrative about the realities of war.

The author provides a very real glimpse into the everyday life of a soldier and the challenges that he must have faced in Bosnia while undertaking the work of a peacekeeper. I've gained more of an understanding of how incredibly difficult the situation was for everyone involved in the war in Bosnia.

Arnold Jansen op de Haar has created a moving account about the far-reaching effects of war in his debut novel, King of Tuzla, and I'm grateful to Holland Park Press for sending me a copy.

King of Tuzla is a novel but it reads more like non-fiction. If you like reading about historical events and military campaigns, you will enjoy this novel.

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