Vincent Bijlo is a blind Dutch stand-up comedian, columnist, musician and author. Many appearances on TV, radio and in the theatre have made him a household name in the Netherlands. His latest output is a novel (translated by Susan Ridder) about a boy searching for identity and security. Review by Mandy Redvers-Rowe
In a world where guide dogs bite and blind children bully, you wouldn’t expect so much humour and humanity. But ‘The Institute’ by Vincent Bijlo isn’t like any other book I’ve read.
It paints an honest, funny, sometimes brutal, but entirely believable picture of life in a Dutch 1970’s residential blind school. How would I know? Okay, so I’m not Dutch, but I am blind, and did go to Chorleywood School for Girls with Little or No Sight for three years in the 1980’s, and believe me, there are a lot of similarities!
Otto Iking is eleven, blind and lives in one of the residential houses at his school – number 1, The Blue Tit – with fellow pupils who he describes as “smelly, strange, immature, dumb and funny in the head”. At first, I don’t like him much, apart from his dodgy use of language, he and his best friend Harry, who is super blind, the blindest of the blind, run an on-going bullying competition, with an agreed list of points for administering specific acts of cruelty – Tripping up Michiel is five points, beating up Pieter is ten points…
But he grew on me. Apart from anything, it becomes apparent that beneath his toughness, he is scared. Scared of thunder – scared of one of the teachers guide dog’s Leda who bites– scared of the one boy who has some sight and who is a worse bully than he is – and scared of having to use his white stick in the able-bodied world. He isn’t scared of hurting himself, he doesn’t use a stick in the school grounds, and hurtles around with little regard for personal safety, no he’s scared of “looking like a fool walking along the pavement waving a crazy stick.”
Within the grounds of the school he is fearless, cycles, borrows – without asking – a teachers moped and successfully drives it around, using sound to navigate, before replacing it in the same place he found it. He climbs trees, runs about, does everything you’d expect a boy of eleven to do. His ambition is to be a Presenter, and broadcasts from his dormitory every night ‘The Daily Otto Show’ on his station Radio Fed Up!
The comedy is interesting. There is a lot that sighted people would find funny – how he is caught buying cigarettes because the bag he’s carrying them in is clear plastic and he hadn’t known that. How he’s caught playing a trick on the cook, because the headmaster, unseen by Otto, is standing right behind him. But there are also references that only other blind people might get – how the braille version of ‘War and Peace’ by Tolstoy, takes up 55 volumes. I remember laughing when discovering that an entire shelf that ran down the side of the room in our 6th form lounge, housed all 25 volumes of the Oxford Pocket English dictionary!
Otto also describes moments that the sighted people with him find funny, but that he finds humiliating. Like when he pops a wrapped chocolate into his mouth – not understanding that he’s supposed to take the wrapping off, first. A mistake easy to make if you’ve never been introduced to wrapped sweets before, but one that sighted people wouldn’t make because they’d be able to observe other people unwrapping them.
This is the most interesting aspect of the book for me. How the sighted, able-bodied world impacts on Otto and the other children. How journalists visit and film and record, then misrepresent. How his own parents struggle to see him and his talents. This exploration is not simplistic though, the author doesn’t portray all non-disabled people as being prejudiced, and there are teachers and other parents, who recognise that the children are children who just can’t see. They also understand that “the world of the able-bodied could be tough.”
Academically there is an underlying pressure for the pupils to move on, get accepted into a mainstream school – and if they do they are seen to have succeeded in some way. But Otto is unconvinced – “children are children, whether they can see or not.”
Vincent himself is blind, a successful stand-up comedian, radio presenter, playwright and author – please see his biography below. ‘The Institute’ was originally published in The Netherlands in 1998, and this is a new translation by Susan Ridder.
I’d highly recommend this book. It’s compelling, cleverly constructed, and very funny! The Institute is published by Holland Park Press and is on sale for £10 (paperback) and £5 (ebook).
Vincent Bijlo studied Dutch language and literature at the University of Utrecht, and in 1988 won the public’s prize and the best personality prize at the Cabaret Festival in Leiden. This was the start of Bijlo’s successful career as a stand-up comedian. He has written many theatre shows, from Made in Braille in 1989 to his current tour of Het nieuwe nu (The New Present).
In 2016/17, he appeared with The Rosettis, (including Vincent’s wife Mariska Reijmerink), in Op Woeste Hoogte (Wuthering Heights), a musical theatre production about the Brontё family. Dutch publishing house De Arbeiderspers published his four novels Het instituut in 1998, Achttienhoog in 2001, De woordvoerder in 2003 and De Ottomaanse herder in 2009.