Book review: Selma – Carolijn Visser
Escaped Hitler, prisoner of Mao. That is the subtitle of the book Selma by Carolijn Visser. The book gives a special insight into the life of Selma Vos, the only Dutchman who lived in China during Mao’s infamous campaigns in which millions of people lost their lives. The book describes, based on letters from Selma to her father, how she and her family lived under Mao’s reign of terror and were eventually arrested. Writer Carolijn Visser paints an impressive and gloomy picture of the great parades in Tiananmen Square, the gray atmosphere in Beijing, the great famine, the re-education of urban dwellers by the peasants and the radical Red Guards who defy everything that is Western or not. Communist was disapproved and destroyed.
- Details of the book
- The story
- What stands out about this book
- An impressive insight into Mao’s China
- Communism in the Netherlands
- How the book came about
- Detached writing style makes empathy difficult
- The book only becomes exciting in the second half
- Fragments that characterize the book
- Recommended or not?
Details of the book
- Title: Selma
- Subtitle: Escaped Hitler, prisoner of Mao
- Writer: Carolijn Visser
- Edition: Paperback, 287 pages
- Publisher: Augustus Publishers
- 1st edition: September 2016
- ISBN: 978-90-450-3620-5
In the Second World War, the Jewish Selma Vos narrowly escapes death. During a raid, she and her parents are arrested and put on the train to Westerbork. A door remains open and Selma and her father jump from the moving train. Her mother does not dare and stays put; a week later she is gassed in Sobibor. After the war her father remarried to Corrie fairly quickly. Selma doesn’t like her much and goes to study in Cambridge, a long way from home on purpose. There she meets the Chinese Chang Tsao. They get married, live together in Cambridge and when Chang gets a job in Hong Kong, they move there with their son Dop. A few months after the birth of their daughter Greta, they decide to leave for China. They see a golden future in the country liberated by the communists. But Mao’s China turns out to be nowhere near as ideal as they probably once thought. They experience several of Mao’s infamous campaigns: Bloom a Hundred Flowers, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Millions of people die in these campaigns, many of them from famine, but also from aggravated assault and suicide. Most foreigners have left the country for a long time by then; Selma is even the only Dutch person to live in China at that time. This book tells how Selma and her family fare.
What stands out about this book
An impressive insight into Mao’s China
The book provides an impressive insight into Chinese society at the time of Mao. The image that Carolijn Visser paints is gray, gray, raw and depressing. There is hardly any food available, it is forbidden to criticize and neighbors betray each other so that you cannot open your mouth anymore. The top party officials fall from their pedestals and end up in prison. Having a family abroad is already a reason to be beaten, people are being murdered for their counter-revolutionary ideas and everyone lives in fear.
Communism in the Netherlands
The book also provides insight into the communist and Maoist movement in the Netherlands. The Kommunistiese Eenheidsbeweging Nederland (KEN), which later became the SP and was led by Daan Monjé, appears to be sponsored by China. Mao’s influence on the SP was great: the meetings always started with (self) criticism, after Mao’s model. The Maoists did not want to know that under Mao’s rule there had been so many deaths and many driven to suicide. However, it was known. Jan Marijnissen, who succeeded Daan Monjé after his death, never wanted to answer questions about the Maoist past of the SP.
How the book came about
Carolijn Visser, the author of the book, met Selma ?? s children during the break from a lecture she was giving. They told her about their Dutch mother Selma, who went with their father to China in 1950. In 2012 they gave her the letters that Selma sent to their grandfather in the Netherlands during the years in China. These letters formed the basis of this book, supplemented with the stories of Dop (his Chinese name is Tseng Y) and Greta.
Detached writing style makes empathy difficult
The book is described in a very distant and contemplative way, so that the emotions do not jump off the pages. This is partly due to the somewhat passive and guessing writing style. Examples of this:
It must have reassured Max Vos that a Dutchman lived near his daughter.
It couldn’t have been pleasant news for Selma that Pauli was leaving.
Selma must have regularly thought about her childhood in IJmuiden.
Because of this detachment, Selma does not seem very sympathetic: stiff, stiff, distant. Perhaps completely wrong, because in the letters to her father a much looser person shines through: The temperature is barely at the moment, fluctuating between 32 and 38 degrees and it is terribly humid, so humid that the bed pillows smell completely musty. Such a letter rather evokes an image of a Joop ter Heul-like girl.
The book only becomes exciting in the second half
That same emotionless, contemplative writing style ensures that it takes quite a while for the story to take hold of you. But that moment will come! Starting on page 178, when Selma’s family gets a house search, things get tense and it takes effort to put the book away. What misery there in China! It is bizarre to read the atmosphere in Beijing: a total culture of fear, no one dared to express his opinion out loud, because people were constantly betraying each other. No one resisted either, despite all the suffering that was done to them.
Fragments that characterize the book
Before they could speak, the door swung open and a dozen or so people dressed in blue and green crowded into the house. We come to do a house search! one of them announced. We collect evidence for the crimes committed by Tsao Ri Chang and his foreign wife. They were Red Guards from the Psychological Institute. Greta and Dop knew them. Most of them had come by at the Chinese New Year to wish them good luck. ??
Yvonne visited Selma once, a shocking experience […]. It was horrible how Selma lived. In such a dingy courtyard where all Chinese families lived. Very sad. And to think that they were from Hong Kong. There her husband had a good job! ??
Someone referred Dop to a building, he was expected. He entered a room where about fifteen people were gathered. As soon as they caught sight of him, they started screaming at him in rage. Your mother wanted to avoid her punishment! Your mother was a traitor. You’re the son of a traitor.
Recommended or not?
Selma is definitely worth a read. You have to get in there for a while, but you learn a lot about China in the Mao era. It shows you that even the best ideology can turn into a disaster if it radicalises. And it makes you realize how good you are, in our Dutch society full of abundance.