An accusation turns the life of a world-famous artist upside down
In a grand, sweeping novel, Oek de Jong shows how artist Maris Coppoolse is tortured by his past and the huge impact this has, not only on his work, but also on the lives of his loved ones.
The novel opens with Maris and his wife arguing in a taxi on their way to the opening of a career retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Maris is tense; the noise on the street is making him aggressive, and he takes everything Fran says as a provocation. Fran feels agitated and tries to ignore Maris’ high-strung mood. After twenty years, they’re practically strangers to one another in a relationship full of fear and mistrust: ‘they belonged to a generation that had learned to talk freely about sex, but their pain and hurt had driven them back into the silence and silent suffering of their parents.’
Maris is a big man with a booming voice and a striking face. He lives predominantly in the past, but at the same time tries to repress it. His life is marked by two traumatic events in his childhood. He is abused by three boys. Then, several weeks later, he plays a sex game with Matty, the girl next door, in a black barn. She ends up falling from the hay loft and she dies. He is charged with manslaughter and has to spend some time in a youth offenders’ institution.
Fran is aware of his background. She admires his work but is aware that he’s sick of her. She has two children from a previous relationship with a photographer and filmmaker who then died in a car accident near Rome. Her daughter Stan is a war photographer, and her son Thijs is a journalist. Thijs is level-headed and analytical and closer to his mother; Stan is impulsive and temperamental and has a close relationship with Maris.
In his characteristic, visceral style – rich with visual and tactile detail – De Jong has Maris relive his past. He describes in detail the events in the run-up to and on the day of the fatal accident, and how Maris rebuilds his life in the aftermath, growing into a celebrated artist. In the course of this story, he also paints a vivid picture of the gritty Amsterdam of the ’80s, with its artists and drug addicts.
In the novel’s impressive final section, Maris and Fran travel to La Gomera. After all the darkness, De Jong offers his characters and readers some light. Maris comes to terms with Matty’s death, and the marital crisis that he and Fran have been stuck in for over a year seems to be resolved.