The False Dawn
A picaresque novel, brimming with events, jokes, myths, algebra and stories within stories
‘I’m older than I ever wanted to become’ is how Hroswith van Wikala, globetrotter and scholar, begins his tale in the historical novel, De Valse Dageraad (The False Dawn) by Jan van Aken.
Just before his death, in the year 1056, Hroswith, who is almost a hundred, peels parchment off a Bible in order to set down his astonishing life story. He tells how he was born in a village in the Lowlands, as the son of a Danish king’s daughter and a famed swordsmith. From a tender age, he was extraordinarily talented, blessed with an incredible memory and an apparently effortless ability to learn foreign languages.
Driven from his village because of his inexplicable talents, Hroswith wanders through Medieval Europe. He forges swords for the Norsemen, is sold as a slave and ends up in the ship of the Arab merchant and arch-liar Abu al-Fath al-Iskandari, who takes him to Damascus and Andalusia. When he returns home twenty years later, he catches the eye of the two most important people of that time, the Pope and the Emperor. Once at the court of the child emperor, Otto III, who travels between his residences in Cologne and Rome, he is assigned the task of compiling a library from all extant ancient knowledge and literature.
De Valse Dageraad is an unadulterated picaresque novel, written in an infectious, ironic-archaic style. The book is brimming with events, anachronistic jokes, primordial myths, algebra, quotes in Gothic, Latin and Arabic and stories within stories. Jan van Aken has not hesitated to combine historical facts regarding the court of Emperor Otto with elements more usually found in fantasy novels. De Valse Dageraad – like Van Aken’s far more compact debut, Het oog van de basilisk (The Eye of the Cockatrice) – draws inspiration from not only the novels of Dutch great writers as Vestdijk and Couperus, but also the Asterix cartoons and the science fiction of Jack Vance.
If Jan van Aken were to be compared with just one contemporary writer, then it would have to be Umberto Eco. In Baudolino, Eco has a villain turning up in the Middle Ages – albeit two centuries later, at the court of Emperor Frederik Barbarossa – and he, too, fills his books to bursting, as we all know, with references and pitfalls. Van Aken was aware of the parallel with Eco and even presents his famous Italian colleague as a ‘corpulent Langobard’ who steals Aristotle’s second Poetica – the book that plays such a central role in Eco’s The Name of the Rose – from a monastery.
Passages such as these, full of humour and pace, are typical of Jan van Aken. In De Valse Dageraad he proves himself a born storyteller, continually maintaining an infectious light-heartedness in this fanciful, rich novel.