Requiem for a friend
Moody, honest, authentic
Only one thing counts for J.J. Voskuil: the truth. He does not venture into fantasy in his novels, but rather sketches his recollections of a particular period or person with a rare, sharp eye for precision. In Bij nader inzien (On Second Thoughts, 1963), his mammoth debut novel about the friendship between a number of young literary students just after the war, the meticulous description of their behaviour, their words and their deeds leaves you with an uncanny impression of how it feels for Maarten Koning, Voskuil’s alter ego, to be betrayed by his friends.
And in Het Bureau (The Bureau), his seven-part, 5,500-page novel, he analyses the conduct of civil servants at a scientific institute in minute detail in an equally humorous and vicious manner, dissecting his colleagues with a razor-sharp scalpel. On the basis of his findings, Maarten Koning concludes that the camaraderie at work is just an illusion.
The same theme returns, essentially, in his latest book, Requiem for a Friend. The story of the friendship between Han Voskuil and Jan Breugelman, two boys from the Hague who grow up together and maintain a stormy relationship in later life through letters and meetings, also finishes in deception. There is, nevertheless, one big difference. Unlike Voskuil’s earlier work, here the major characters appear under their own name (only Breugelman’s has been altered slightly for reasons of privacy) and the book is written in the first person.
Voskuil evidently wished to make his new novel more personal than his previous books. More authentic. The effect is enhanced by the continual quotes from the letters written to him by Jan Breugelman in the course of their friendship. Breugelman was a manic depressive and periods of gloomy silence and depression alternated with energetic, exuberant outbursts. The letters provided Voskuil with the perfect opportunity to illustrate how Breugelman’s situation deteriorated and the chaos in his head worsened. In an interview, the author remarked, ‘The reader has to be confronted with that mania, he should feel crushed’.
The friendship between the two men was also crushed in reality. Not only because Breugelman’s political views changed radically from extreme left to extreme right, but primarily due to the fact that Breugelman refused to do anything to combat his progressive illness. In the last chapter he stops taking his medicine and ends up languishing in a mental institution. Just how ill his friend is seems not to really dawn on Voskuil even then. Finally, he is rudely awakened on the very last page, when Breugelman sends him and his wife packing for good: ‘Sod bloody off!’
The poignant final scene of a moody, honest and authentic book.