A disreputable old trouper is plucked from obscurity in this enigmatic novel of the theater, a Pirandellian shuffle of reality and illusion from Dutch writer Mulisch (The Assault, 1985). The Bouwmeesters were once Holland's premier theatrical family, the Dutch Barrymores; but by 1982 the only survivors are 78-year-old Uli and his sister Berta, crabby siblings living outside Amsterdam, with only death on the horizon. Uli's career as a second-rate vaudevillian ended prematurely in 1945, when he was briefly interned for having performed before the Nazis. Now, out of the blue, he is invited by an avant-garde theater in Amsterdam to play the lead in a verse melodrama: grand old man Pierre de Vries, giving his 1904 farewell performance as Prospero. Is Uli being set up? Berta fears so, but Uli finds the director respectful, the company friendly, and the role manageable (for he has never forgotten technique); he feels ecstatic, reborn even. But then the weather turns stormy: Uli must navigate Amsterdam's street life (including an "abduction" by some thugs), while also dealing with the past, when his internment is revealed during a TV interview. Here, narrator Mulisch steps forward to confess that he lacks the power to withdraw Uli from "this unholy enterprise." What he can do, evidently, is prevent artistic vindication for Uli, who will suffer a seizure during a chaotic dress rehearsal, and die ignominiously; the glory is reserved for Uli's "character," de Vries—whom Mulisch envisions, in an imagined extension of the play, being feted by tout Amsterdam (which, in yet another irony, is unaware that de Vries has just murdered his lover). Does a messy life, like Uli's, decree a messy exit? Should he have refused the theater's offer? Or does de Vries' triumphant valediction belong to Uli too, beyond the grave? Mulisch's open-ended narrative invites various interpretations; what is certain is that his richly textured, intermittently absorbing novel shows a profound knowledge, and love, of the theater.
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