Harness of Hansaplast
Lament for a brother who died lonely, and for an eccentric family
Charlotte Mutsaers’ new book is dedicated to ‘all members of the family I come from and the house where we lived’. It is an ambiguous declaration of love for a parental nest that produced misfortune and good fortune, mystery and undiluted misery; it is at once a testimony of loyalty and betrayal.
Every family has its extremes and its black sheep. Here the black sheep was Barend, the youngest in a family after two older sisters, A. and C. The underlying theme of this novel is outsiders. The Mutsaers family, living in a large house in the historic centre of Utrecht, could not have been more eccentric. The writer herself talks of a ‘bizarre lineage’, one which had fatal consequences, ‘that prevented us from developing the ability to take life at its word.’
In one of her essays Mutsaers has written that Kafka would probably never have written The Metamorphosis if he had had a loving beetle for a little sister. After all, what words does he put into the mouth of Gregor’s sister, once Gregor has changed into a beetle? ‘Dear parents, this cannot continue. Perhaps you haven’t realised this, but I have. I do not wish to address this vermin by my brother’s name, so I will only say that we must attempt to get rid of him. We have tried everything to care for and tolerate him; I do not believe anyone could find anything to reproach us with.’
Among the most chilling sections of the book are those in which the author imagines her deceased brother being found by the police, who subsequently ‘sweep up’ his body as Samsa does at the end of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The passage through the rooms where he kept his books, porn and comics is simultaneously a passage through their childhood home, presented as a haunted house, covered in cobwebs, dust and litter. It is a house once dominated by a father who preceded his children in a radical kind of courage – ‘Make sure you can fend for yourselves, or you’ll be crushed by the hordes.’
Now the two remaining sisters pace up and down, nervously rubbing their hands, swinging between fear, revulsion, rage and pity, one with shoulders drooping so low that the other thinks she needs shoulder pads, the other eager to put on a dress she wore at the age of eighteen, proud that it can still fit. Amidst the mess there emerges a shaky monument to a family and its youngest offshoot, a boy, a man, who must have lived an indescribably lonely life. ‘How to live, that’s what it’s always about,’ writes his sister, no more a beetle than her brother, but a deeply kindred spirit: ‘How to live when life will irrevocably abandon you and the only weapon against tears is a clean handkerchief.’