A new novel by best-selling Dutch author Arthur Japin - In Lucia's Eyes - explores the dark side of his country's tolerance of outsiders.
By Richard Allen Greene
In an interview with the BBC News website, coinciding with the book's launch in English, he describes how he found a parallel for this topical Dutch theme in the life of arch-seducer Giacomo Casanova.
Japin himself appears to be very much an insider. He knew Italian film-maker Federico Fellini, he is working with the composer Jonathan Dove on an operatic adaptation of his first
novel, and has been asked to write a book specially for Dutch Book Week.
Japin questions the sentiments behind Dutch tolerance
But in his two novels to be translated into English, Japin has stepped into the skin of an outsider, picking obscure historical figures who lived in the Netherlands.
His breakthrough first novel, The Two Hearts Of Kwasi Boachi, tells the tale of an African prince sent to live in the Netherlands in the 19th Century.
In Japin's hands, the true story of the Ashanti prince becomes an exploration of racism and identity, told with the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom of age.
In Lucia's Eyes follows a similar pattern, but latches onto a footnote in the tale of Casanova.
Peasant to prostitute
The great 18th-Century lover and adventurer makes two passing references in his memoirs to his first love, an Italian peasant girl whom he saw again many years after they first met, horribly scarred and working as a prostitute in the Netherlands.
"That's what got me going," Japin says. "What's her story? How did she go from being
a simple peasant girl to a whore - and most of all, how did she get disfigured?"
Japin's heroine steps from the footnotes of Casanova's memoirs
Japin takes Casanova's casual remark and runs with it, imagining a young woman intelligent and talented far out of proportion to what might be expected given
her humble beginnings.
His book follows that woman, Lucia, from an estate near Venice where the lady of the manor treats her as one of the family, through misfortune that leaves her badly scarred and determined to leave Casanova for his own good.
She finds herself in a sort of apprenticeship with a group of highly educated women in Bologna - again based on real historical figures, known collectively as the femmes savantes. Finally she ends up in the Netherlands where, hidden behind a veil, she becomes a highly desirable courtesan.
Looking out at the Dutch from behind her disguise, she makes her most interesting, acid comments of the entire book, tearing to shreds one of the country's most famed attributes.
"Tolerance is not the same as acceptance. It is actually closer to the opposite: tolerance like this is a clever means of repression.
"If you accept others as equals, you embrace them unconditionally, now and forever. But if you let them know that you tolerate them, you suggest in the same breath that they are actually an inconvenience, like a nagging pain or an unpleasant odour you are willing to disregard.
"Tolerance is cloaked menace: the mood can change at any moment."
Lucia's thoughts here - as so often throughout the book - seem to mirror Japin's own.
"It can be very condescending for people to say they will accept you as you are," he says.
He wrote the book in 2003, as the Netherlands was engaged in heated debate about its growing Muslim community.
The country had been shocked the year before by its first political murder in centuries - that of firebrand politician Pim Fortuyn, who advocated restrictions on immigration. He was killed by a Dutch-born militant animal-rights activist, not a Muslim or a foreigner.
The killing of Pim Fortuyn stunned the Netherlands
And in an odd coincidence, Japin spoke to the BBC News website on the day a Muslim radical pleaded guilty to the brutal murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh - an event that Japin says has "changed the Dutch perception of foreigners quite radically".
But while Japin is suspicious of what lies behind his culture's apparently liberal attitude towards outsiders, he remains firmly the champion of those who do not fit in.
His books, he says, "are always about a single character alone trying to find their way in society. Should they do what society wants them to do?"
Japin's response is a firm "no".
"The things that set you apart can also be an enormous strength."