A hilarious satire of middle-class marriage morphs into an examination of the immigrant underclass
Peter Lindke is not just an international Rembrandt specialist, but also a husband and father, roles he fulfils with considerably less dedication and success. The novel starts with him accidentally leaving his wife Kee behind at a motorway petrol station. The absurd scene and Kee’s bitterly humorous musings immediately establish the lovelessness of their marriage.
From slapstick interactions with the family’s perfectly vegan neighbours to the loneliness of the parental bed, Van der Kwast combines caricature and painful insights to depict Peter and Kee’s dissatisfied life in a gentrifying neighbourhood.
Peter is a curator at a leading gallery specialised in the paintings of Rembrandt, perhaps the pinnacle of Dutch cultural achievement. Although obsessive, his passion for Rembrandt is genuine and more informed than his feelings for the nearest and dearest he barely knows. When he lets himself be drawn into a million-dollar attribution controversy, even appearing on TV, he loses his job and is forced into a personal reappraisal.
With this new phase in Peter’s life, the novel transitions to a more serious style that includes characters suffering the downside of social change: Peter’s cleaner Djemine and the eponymous Ilyas. Both are beset by seemingly insoluble debt problems, but Peter now has time to help negotiate a path through the bureaucracy, finding a new vocation for himself in the process.
Drawing on his own experience as a counsellor, the author presents realistic characters and situations while examining Peter’s motivations. At the same time the new tone extends to developments in Peter and Kee’s unhappy marriage − farce now reconsidered as tragedy. By fusing these disparate elements, the author produces a portrait of class conflict that is entertaining, convincing and ultimately moving.
The novel ends with a moving scene of friendship between Peter and Ilyas. Economic and marital problems remain, but the possibility of real contact is grounds for hope.