Like The First Day
In search of the first-time sensation: first look, first love, first experience
As in his first, successful novel, Terug naar Merelbeke (Back to Merelbeke) – in which a young boy imagines paradise appearing in Merelbeke, in reality, a small ugly, grey Flemish town – in Als op de eerste dag (Like the First Day) Stefan Hertmans goes in search of the sensation of the first time: first look, first love, first experience. Not by returning to the lost years of his youth, but by another path: the dark, often destructive immoral realm of the imagination.
Als op de eerste dag is a novel of three trilogies, three times three short stories, in which the lives of one protagonist after another are touched upon. The first trilogy is set in the 1950s and represents childhood. Three young boys are consumed with desire for the sublime. One of them, in his confusion, tries to strangle his dream love on stage, the girl who plays Mary in the nativity play. In the title story, another boy pushes a girl off the balcony, simply because he has just had sex for the first time and is eager to preserve that moment.
The second trilogy, set between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, focuses on a group of school children who make their teachers’ lives hell. One teacher falls down the stairs; another is dragged into the flywheel of a car engine with his electric-blue leather tie. And the last trilogy – a symbol for the perversity of adulthood – finishes with the story of a psychopath, losing himself in a pornographic fantasy.
Set out like this, one after another, the stories make it clear just how sinister the imaginary world of Stefan Hertmans ultimately proves to be. All his stories – which, with their varying characters, perspectives and styles, are nevertheless mysteriously linked to each other – make a beeline for doom. Just the same, the stories all start with a burning desire for the intensity of love, for experiencing the first time anew. That is the apparently innocent aim of Hertmans’ characters. To achieve that aim, however, they overstep the psychopathological boundary, lose their way in the dark and slip into the abyss.
Als op de eerste dag (Like The First Day) has an, oppressive, hallucinatory power. Stefan Hertmans dares his readers to follow him into the darkness, rewarding them with an experience that is both hair-raising and chastening.