A highly entertaining novel from the Netherlands’ most successful author
Herman Koch’s latest novel revolves around Robert Walter, the Mayor of Amsterdam, a man faced with a wide array of responsibilities and interests. As always in Koch’s novels, his lead character’s reliability soon begins to reveal its first flaws.
Robert is unwilling to reveal the background of his daughter and wife, who was born outside the Netherlands, because ‘people might leap to all sorts of conclusions’. On the other hand, he makes remarks that hint at his own prejudice, commenting on the laziness and criminal tendencies of people from certain countries. But he does not voice these opinions in public. Only the reader is privy to these thoughts. The citizens of his city see him as an ever-friendly civil servant.
Another topic preying on Robert’s mind is that he suspects his wife is unfaithful. Having seen her laughing with a colleague at a reception, all her subsequent behaviour seems to confirm his suspicions, even though there is no real proof that she is having an affair. Pursued by rising paranoia, Robert is unable to find any evidence, until he concludes that the absence of any visible sign offers the firmest foundation for his misgivings. And so the world is turned upside down, but Walter sees no other explanation.
Apart from these suspicions, Robert’s life is further complicated by his parents. His aging father reveals that he plans to end his life together with his wife, not because they are ill, but because they have simply had enough. Both his parents are in their 90s, but Robert is somewhat suspicious of his father, who drives around in a sports car and boasts that he can still score with young waitresses, which casts a shadow on his intentions. Does this man really intend to end it all, for no clear reason, simply because things aren’t as much fun as they used to be? ‘Everything has become a game in this country. It’s one big funfair. Even death,’ says Walter.
And then there’s another plotline, revolving around a photo from the 1980s. Could that be Walter in the picture, meting out abuse? A journalist has the photo in her portfolio. The curtain could drop at any moment: no wife, no job, no parents. But things take a different turn. Koch keeps readers on the edge of their seats until the very end, conjuring up a dramatic twist that few will see coming. Ultimately, this book is about certainties, the fear of loss, and jealousy. In short, another intense and highly entertaining novel from the Netherlands’ most successful author.