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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Tortot, the Cold Fish Who Lost his World and Found his Heart
by Benny Lindelauf
Age Range: 12+
It is said that Tortot has “the heart of a fish at the bottom of the ocean.” He is a talented army cook who travels from war to war refusing to take sides, priding himself on his lack of emotion or involvement while cunningly cooking amazing food for whichever army is convenient. “For Tortot war was a generous employer. Where there was war there were soldiers that needed to be fed. As far as he was concerned the fighting could go on forever.”
The story is set in an unspecified historical era during the Great Wars which is a period encompassing “seven ordinary wars, three revolutions and two counter-revolutions, as well as the ‘pivotal’ War of the Gherkins.”
During one of these campaigns, Tortot comes across a young recruit who is looking for his brothers and dismissively sends him off in the wrong direction. Now a deserter and double amputee, after a botched operation, George, (or Half George as Tortot nicknames him), turns up in a Gherkin barrel delivered to the army kitchen. Tortot is to invent weird and wonderful gherkin culinary delights for the twin Emperors’ who believe its magical properties will restore their pock-marked complexion but unfortunately, no gherkins remain as they've all been eaten by Half George. Nevertheless Tortot somehow manages to serve up a seven-course feast without them.
Gradually Tortot finds that Half George’s cheerful disposition, stubbornness and inquisitiveness gradually thaws his icy heart and he devises a clever plan to bring an end to the War of the Gherkins and save George’s life.
Benny Lindelauf is a multi-award-winning Dutch children's writer and this fable-like story is very different from the two other fiction titles Nine Open Arms and Fing’s War that have been translated into English. His novels are always multi-layered and Tortot, the Cold Fish Who Lost His World and Found His Heart is no exception. It is a complex story using comedic absurdity to highlight the futility of war and how greed and power corrupts.
Lindelauf provides some brilliant irreverent deadpan wit but also doesn’t spare the reader details of the true horrors of war all of which is captured perfectly by Laura Watkinson’s consummate translation. There is also the poignancy of how Tortot discovers the redemptive power of friendship and love and his longing to return home. A tale for all ages and one that should be read by everyone.
Intricate black and white line drawings throughout by Dutch illustrator Ludwig Volbeda. Tortot is the first children's book he has illustrated and it won a nomination for the BoekenPauw prize for best-illustrated children's book.
Lindelauf’s books have been translated into six languages. Nine Open Arms was a 2015 Mildred L. Batchelder Honor Book and the follow-up title Fing’s War (2019).