TONGUECAT by Peter Verhelst


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Incoherent allegory involving the descent of Prometheus to an imaginary modern city.

Dutch editor Verhelst received several awards (Golden Owl Award, Young Golden Owl Award) for this debut novel in the Netherlands, so the most charitable assumption must be that a great deal was lost in the translation. Whatever the case, the story is about as intelligible as Finnegan’s Wake but entirely lacking in originality of the kind that animated Joyce. We begin in the year Zero in an unnamed city that is probably supposed to be somewhere on the planet Earth. The city is undergoing the Great Winter, becoming frozen over bit by bit until its inhabitants are driven to extremes of behavior (alcohol, amputations, orgies) to keep warm. The King, concerned for his people, consults his magicians and tries to avert complete disaster by marrying the Girl-With-Red-Hair. Eventually, the King disappears, though his courtiers maintain a precarious hold on power. Soon Prometheus arrives, bringing fire with him. He is guided through the city by a young woman named Ulrike, who creates music with her body. Prometheus is a Titan (that is, one of the exiled gods), and soon more Titans follow him to the city. Later, there’s a revolution against the King, and the rebels (who use ice bullets in their attacks) are helped by the Titans. Or maybe not—it’s hard to tell. As expected in any story with Prometheus, there’s a consuming fire, this one destroying much of the city—or, possibly, much of another city. A good part of the narration is a kind of New Age impressionism (“Smooth wood. A tabletop. The back of a chair. A blanket. A bed. Hair. More hair. Faces”).

In all, unsatisfying, if not pompous gibberish.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-374-27843-1
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2003