Arts & Entertainment

How ‘Heer Bommel’ became Squire Bomble - A Dutch icon comes to America

Credits: © Text and Images Toonder Company, Netherlands

During this eventful political season, TAPinto Sparta has been running a daily feature ‘The Mighty Barribal’ by Dutch graphic novelist Marten Toonder. All episodes are available online in the Opinion Column. The story will be featured until Election Day. Today an in-depth interview with the translator, Adrian Meerman, about the story and its setting. The interview was edited for clarity.


The Mighty Barribal has been running in TAPinto for almost two weeks now and judging by the number of hits each episode has received, there seems to be a growing audience. Four towns in our area have picked it up so that’s a good geographic reach. How do you feel about the reception of the story?

Pleased, obviously. During the years that I worked on this story and several others, I had an audience of maybe two or three family members (chuckles), so this is a whole new dimension. I never knew if the story would catch on or if a wider audience would take to Bomble. He is an everyman, of course, even if he lives in a castle with a manservant and all, and that may well be his greatest appeal. And then the shape of his world, drawn like an old-time fable populated with animal figures, allows people to imagine a world different from their own, a World 2.0 as it were, one they wouldn’t mind having the keys to. I am very happy that people want to spend some of their reading time there.

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You mention the ‘shape’ of Bomble’s world. Were the drawings done by the author himself?

Yes; he had an art background and even though he later collaborated with others on some of his output, he remained the essential creator of the Bomble stories. The drawings allowed him to be very succinct in his narrative style since the visuals are already there. It’s what makes his work true graphic novels; text and images completing each other, though each telling a slightly different story. The images show you very directly what’s going on, they cannot lie, even though they give such a quirky portrayal of the world. The more adult text has to then mold itself around this reality without ever saying ‘Look! There’s talking animals driving cars’ because once you say it, the magic is gone.


One of your main characters is Squire Bomble. What makes him a squire and not a mister?

Bomble never refers to himself as ‘squire,’ only as ‘gentleman,’ a gentleman of quality. That last bit is important to him, not to be an ordinary gentleman. A squire traditionally was a country gentleman who oversaw the welfare of the tenant population of his area. He was not nobility but would still carry a certain authority. Calling him Squire such-and-such was a way to acknowledge that. In this story, only Ocelot, Jobes, and the narrator refer to him as Squire Bomble, because they (and by extension we) are part of the inner circle who love and respect him. To everybody else in that world he is plain old Mister Bomble.


And Ocelot, how does he fit it?

Ocelot is Bomble’s best friend but that’s about all that we know about him. He has no family, essentially no past and hardly any sense of the future. His singular name ‘Ocelot’ reflects this lack of ties with the world. He was the original hero of the series but once Bomble appeared on the scene, he assumed the number two slot. He is inventive, bounces back from any situation, and has saved Bomble from more than one hopeless situation. His internal world is only in small spaces, in certain details of the story, whereas Bomble is all out there. Toonder thought of him as the rational principle and Bomble as the emotional heart of the stories.


What attracted you to this particular story? There seems to be a lot of relevance in it for our times.

What I like about this story is how it works on different levels. There is the adventure story of two good friends bumping into a dangerous giant and after lots of back and forth, unmasking him and saving the day. Then there is the psychological story of looking into the cave of your own subconscious and finding monsters hiding in there. You can run but they still have a way of finding you until you confront them directly. And then, there is this amazingly topical quality to the story since the whole country right now is dealing with an angry giant roaming the land. At this point in the story, Barribal is making his way into town so we’ll see how that goes; maybe get some good tips on how to deal with the situation.


Hmm. We could certainly use some of that...

True, but we are talking about a real country with 300 million people versus a story built around maybe a dozen or so different characters. Still, the principle that we each have an internal reality that bumps up against the outside world holds true no matter where we live. It’s fascinating to see, though, how a classic story like this has a message for different times and places. In Holland, too, it regularly surfaces during contentious election seasons; although nothing like what we’re experiencing today.


When was this work originally created?

This story is from the mid-1960s, which was a time of great liberalization in Holland, when some people pined for the good old days of law and order while others remembered the terror of the political strongmen from midcentury Europe. Looking at that struggle through the eyes of a child is maybe the only way to extract a timeless message from it.


Talking about the eyes of a child, one striking feature of this story is the use of animal figures alongside humanlike characters. How should the reader see this unusual mixture?

To me, it goes to the heart of Toonder’s creativity, literally beginning in the nursery of the house where he grew up. He and his brother would spend hours inventing stories using any toys and gadgets, pull up the furniture in the room, a table and chairs doubling as a dark and dangerous forest and a dresser as a mountain range, and there was their magical world of adventure. I think a story like ‘Barribal’ is best understood as a children’s story for adults. You have the grownup themes, like fear of chaos, but they get combined with the existence of giants and talking animals, straight from a child’s perspective. And like the TAPinto daily format, Toonder first published his stories a page a day, and his readers saw these stories as a reflection of their own lives and their own society.


A kind of reporting from an alternate world?

Yes. Toonder as a journalist from a fictional version of Holland. The text, by the way, never refers to the characters as having animal shapes; that’s all in the images. Instead, his writing uses a lot of understatement combined with straight-faced exaggeration that reveals a playful narrator.


For example?

Take the very first sentence of the story. Ocelot is quasi-seriously described as a sharp little fellow ‘who prepares for the future,’ not with a solid 401-K as you’re supposed to do but with a good stack of firewood. So right away Toonder creates a playful tension between our reality and that of his imaginary world. Or Squire Bomble who spouts a bit of nonsense on the same page about ‘the sun [which] eliminates all bad vapors and that’s a fact.’ No, that’s not a fact and we all know it, but without missing a beat, Toonder then says: ‘explained Squire Bomble,’ as if science were involved after all. There is a tremendous economy of words throughout the text. For me it was a lot of fun coming up with English equivalents to his original style.


That’s the big challenge of translation, then.

Yes and no. I think it goes beyond translation. Translation itself is based foremost on being truthful to the original text. At the most basic level, you can translate a user manual for a piece of equipment and you’ll have to be as precise as possible. Here it’s more about how Toonder intended to reach his Dutch readers. He played off the Dutch language, but also off cultural and political trends in Holland at that time. I am trying to do something similar with our language and try to imagine how Toonder might have used the tricks available in English.



Possibilities, more like. Small changes in how words are used, taking back the literal meaning from figurative language. Like the time when the rain ‘showered Squire Bomble with unwanted attention’, and he really did get wet, not just metaphorically.


How about puns?

Never. Puns are like mimes. Everybody groans even at the thought of them.


How about a happy ending?

(Laughs) You’ll be pleased with how the story ends. There’s a good meal in it for everybody.

We’ll have to leave it at this. Thanks for your time and for putting the good squire on the map for us.

Thanks for your questions; it was fun. And I do hope to hear comments and questions from your readers as well. I know you have an excellent Facebook page at TAPinto and I’d love to hear from everybody. Thanks again.


© Text and Images Toonder Company, Netherlands

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