Stylistic tour de force about a young teacher’s struggle to escape a brutal boarding school regime
Jeroen Brouwers explores one of the darkest chapters in our recent history: the sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church. The latest novel by this long-established literary figure has won over critics and readers alike with its harrowing directness, attracting five-star reviews and spending months in the top ten.
Brouwers’ protagonist, mild-mannered Eldert Haman, is neither abuser nor victim. A teacher at a Catholic boarding school, he is gradually absorbed into religious life and becomes a monk there, taking the name Bonaventura. Disturbed by the military discipline to which his young charges are subjected, he treats them instead with compassion. This brings him into conflict with his fellow monks. He is demoted from teaching to being night watchman with the task of making sure that the boys do not succumb to the sins of the flesh.
The novel is set in the early 1950s, shortly after World War II, when people were struggling to build a life for themselves and leave the uncertainties of the war years behind. Mansuetus, a German monk, arrives at the monastery to impose order and discipline.
Bonaventura is not fully aware of the abuses being committed around him until the damage is done: he realises he is powerless to protect the boys from the wooden stick with which Mansuetus beats them. The German monk is the embodiment of evil and his young victims bear the full brunt of his sadistic sexual urges. Trapped like the pupils he is failing to protect, Bonaventura continues to play his part in the grim facade of monastic life.
He falls in love with a young widow, Patricia, who makes him question his actions, plunging him into psychological turmoil. At last he learns to think for himself again and take the boys’ side. Abandoning his monastic robes, he leaves the school and the church, followed by the boys he was unable to protect within its walls.
Brouwers describes this drama subtly and precisely, keeping the narrative voice close to Bonaventura, thereby letting the reader share the monk’s inner struggle and turmoil without turning away from this disturbing world in revulsion. Ultimately the author offers salvation: escape from hell is sometimes possible, if a man is able to find love and stay true to himself.
- winner of ECI Literature Award 2015