Scholarly ambition encounters unforgiving factuality in this previously untranslated 1966 novel from the Dutch author (1921–95) whose edgy experimental fiction includes The Tears of the Acacias and The Dark Room of Damocles.
Narrator Alfred Issendorf is a 25-year-old geology student who joins a scientific expedition to northern Norway (Finnmark), afire with dreams of establishing his reputation, ideally by discovering “a mineral that would be named after me: Issendorfite.” Alfred’s determination to prove his professor and mentor’s thesis—that craters found in the earth of the remote area just north of Lapland were caused by fallen meteors—quickly founders. Contacts lack vital information; promised aerial photographs never materialize; Alfred’s watch and compass malfunction; and mosquitoes plague his every step. Hermans deftly connects Alfred’s hunger for success with memories of his tense relationship with his mother (a renowned literary critic who doesn’t actually read the books she writes about—take that, reviewers!) and inchoate memories of his father, a botanist who died from a fall into a mountain crevasse when his son was seven. The narrative of Alfred’s ordeal—which is beautifully detailed and consummately suspenseful—is also nicely varied by episodic scenes among the protagonist and his three Norwegian fellow travelers: easygoing Arne, unimaginative plodder Mikkelsen and effusive autodidact Qvigstad, a fount of eccentric information who never stops talking. And Alfred’s habit of measuring himself against storied heroes of exploration and discovery provides a firm layer of irony—marred intermittently by numerous reiterations of his gathering fear that “I will have achieved nothing. I will have survived, that’s all.” Such fatalism is both confirmed and tempered by the lucid conclusion, in which a “gift from heaven” decisively completes his journey.
An unusual and intriguing book, and a welcome introduction to the work of a neglected 20th-century master.