I like to read classics, historical fiction and world lit. Oh and I love short stories.
The biography of Toto Koopman, an intriguing woman who lived life to the fullest, is told with contagious enthusiasm by her biographer Jean-Noël Liaut. He takes us to the most vibrant and exciting scenes in 20th century Europe: Paris in the '20s and '30s, the gruesome '40s in Italy and the German camps, London in the '50s and '60s, Sicilian islands where the artistic elite gathers to holiday - the list goes on and on.
The same can be said about the heroine of the story, Toto Koopman; successful model, spy, resistance fighter, camp survivor, society lady, art lover, archeologist, polyglot, biracial, bisexual, sexually liberated, free spirit - she can hardly be described in one word, let alone a list like this. It never seems to feel like a complete portrayal, too closed and narrow to define a woman who lived life the way she wanted, unconditionally.
The author is clearly very much at home in the fashion world, the art world and the cosmopolitan society in which Toto spend her life. This makes for some very interesting insights into that kind of society and the kinds of people Toto rubbed shoulders with, as well as some great anecdotes about the people in her life or the parties and events she attended.
However, the focus on the artistic and fashionable aspects of her life does mean there are some aspects are underexplored. Her role in the Italian resistance and the English counter intelligence services remains vague. The Dutch translation does have an additional chapter in which a Dutch researcher explores her activities a bit more, which I think is a great addition to the biography.
Secondly, there are a lot of gay and bi people in Toto's life. I suppose the cosmopolitan and artistic environment allowed them to be more open about their sexuality. But the book doesn't devote any space to put their lives in context with the wider lgbt community. It also doesn't examine why or how it was possible for Toto to live so openly bisexual, and to be in a long term relationship with another woman. It only comments that "it was so unusual for that time to have an openly lesbian couple". Personally, I would have liked to have that subject explored a bit more.
"The Javanese" - Toto's ethnicity
My one major grievance with this book is the way it handles her ethnicity. Whenever the author refers to it, a racial and offensive term is used. I could understand bringing it up once to underscore the kind of society she grew up in, and how she would have been viewed by white Dutch people. However, the term is used systematically whenever her ethnicity is brought up, right up to the captioning of the photographs.
I cannot understand why the author doesn't use the far more common terms like Indo or Indische Nederlander (basically two terms to refer to Dutch Indonesians). Not only are these regular terms and not offensive, they also give a very precise connotation of the kind of social and cultural environment Toto grew up in.
I also cannot understand the translator not fixing that in their translation which is specifically meant for a Dutch market, with quite likely a lot of Dutch Indonesians being interested in the book. Though considering the translator making a major translation mistake specifically regarding colonial Indonesia (translating the phrase "en malais" - "in Malay", the old word for the Indonesian language - as "in Malaysia". We're not in Malaysia, dear translator, we're in Indonesia), we could safely assume that the translator has absolutely no idea about the history and specific word use related to colonial Indonesia.
Speaking of the Indonesian language, I was very surprised not to see it in the list of languages Toto was able to speak. Did she not speak Indonesian? I would find that very surprising considering her childhood spend in Java and her talent for picking up languages.
All in all, I get the impression that Toto's French biographer (and the translator) has very little feel for her Dutch Indonesian roots and exactly what that entails.
I would not recommend anyone to read the Dutch translation of this biography. Either read the French original or get your hands on the English translation (that one, based on the preview on Amazon, seems to be far better translated).
The Dutch translation is lacking some very basic editing as well as having moments in which it's verifiably imprecize in its translation (the example I've given about Malay, but also when the original English text is given in a footnote).
With regards to editing: at times, it's completely unclear to whom pronouns refer to. There's one paragraph which is so nonsensical that after reading it four times, I still don't know how the sentences are connected to one another. Then there are parts that it is clear that part of the sentence is left out, or punctuation is missing.
This biography, though it has its flaws, is told with such enthusiasm that it leaves you wanting more. Toto was a fascinating woman. I'm rather surprised that she isn't yet the hero in a novel or a movie, because her life does seem to scream for fictionalization.