The New Man
A shipbuilder’s dazzling downfall
Thomas Rosenboom is the master of downfall. In his work he steadily guides his characters, subtly, ironically, to their inevitable destruction. In his previous novel Public Works (Publieke werken, 1999), – which was awarded the Libris Literature Prize just like the novel before that, Washed flesh (Gewassen vlees, 1994), – the pharmacist Anijs and the violin maker Walter Vedder slowly but surely fall under the spell of their delusions. Likewise, in De nieuwe man the director of a shipyard and his foreman fix each other in a stranglehold.
Berend Bepol is the director of a small shipyard on the Damsterdiep in the northernmost point of the Netherlands, on the border with Germany, in the 1920s and 1930s. Bepol has two burning wishes: he wants a husband for his daughter and a successor for his business, and he manages to combine these in one fell swoop by asking his foreman Niesten to marry his daughter and become a partner in the business. When, after some hesitation, Niesten agrees Bepol’s problems seem to be over, but in fact they have just begun. Bepol doesn’t understand what it is that he really wants; slowly it becomes obvious to the reader that he wants to get closer to his foreman.
This becomes slightly ridiculous. Bepol has a house built for his daughter and her new husband right across from his own house, in the grounds of the shipyard. Subsequently he haunts the house and peeks inside. Once Niesten finds him at the back door late at night, and his wife catches him climbing childishly on the saddle of his son-in-law’s motorbike. This intrusion on Bepol’s part inevitably only serves in widening the gap between him and Niesten.
In addition, when difficult economic times hit, Bepol’s attempts in making an impression on Niesten as a successful businessman are in vain. When Niesten on his own initiative brings in a large order for the shipyard, Bepol’s pride is hurt and he refuses to clear the slipway. Niesten doesn’t take that lying down and starts building an enormous tugboat next to the shipyard, in the middle of the meadow. When Niesten, at the advice of Bepol, also pulls in the order for the built-in motor, the ship turns out to be too heavy to be pulled into the water. It remains mired for eternity in the clay of northern Holland.
This tragic plot, which Rosenboom has clearly enjoyed preparing, adding a wealth of telling details and insightful scenes, drives the plot of De nieuwe man. The dazzling failure of the undertaking and the comical yet tragic development of the relationship between master and servant, between two men who are completely at each other’s mercy and go down together, keep the reader glued to the pages of this novel to the very last line.