Year of the Man
The hilarious and morbid account of an initiation into adulthood
Het jaar van de man, the debut of Flemish writer Yves Petry, begins with the setting of autumn portrayed explicitly as a suddenly erupting disease. Clouds are ‘a grey mass, its whole length and breadth covered in purplish lumps, tumbling down on all that ventured into the open.’ And further on: ‘The earth was raped. Spluttered forth from below, spewing mud, and grass, and her last flowers.’ This is how autumn is greeted by the main character in the book, Helm Steen.
Helm is presented as an eccentric, who in his own way rebels against everything which those around him expect and consider to be normal. It is an adolescent form of rebelliousness, which leads him not only to neglect his own home, but also his friends’ who have entrusted him to look after their house and animals in their absence. He also rebels against his father, who considers order the ultimate aim of life. But it quickly becomes clear that this book is about much more than familiar adolescent contrariness. ‘I’ve got nothing against order,’ is Helm’s answer to his father, but the order he aspires to is not that of people, but of the world itself. ‘The world is rigidly organised. It doesn’t originate in the mind of a dreamer, and nor does it originate in the mind of the observer. It just doesn’t originate in the mind of people at all.’
There is something of the mystical in his strivings: his search is for a form of harmony with a world untarnished by human thought and dealings. This explains why, later on, Helm finds salvation in a relationship which is considered ‘unnatural’. His relationship with a boy who he calls Sunday, seems initially to offer him the possibility of remaining outside accepted forms of relationship. He actually meets Sunday just as he leaps in despair at conventional life into a canal. Het jaar van de man reads as an account of the acceptance of shortcomings, as a book which describes the initiation into what is called adulthood. But at the same time it keeps coming into conflict with the limitations of an all too narrowly defined form of humanity, in its imaginative and uplifting use of style and in its perverse, at times morbid, at times hilarious philosophy.