Sublime narrative on the omnipresent surplus of images
With Becoming God, Hans den Hartog Jager has written a first novel that reads like an exciting detective novel. It is not a normal detective novel, however, but a book with the allure and virtuosity of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. It is a search for the genesis of images and significance, and an exploration of the way they persistently elude us. The structure is that of the classic detective novel, with the reporting of a disappearance.
The young, successful art-gallery owner Thomas Locher informs the French police that the renowned artist Lucas Thorvaldsen has vanished into thin air after their ascent of Mont Saint-Victoire. This mountain, in the vicinity of Aix-en-Provence, on the foot of which Pablo Picasso was buried and which was immortalised by Paul Cézanne on countless canvases, marks both the start and the end of modern art.
Locher suspects that the disappearance of Thorvaldsen is a work of art, an ultimate attempt to assign significance to the vacuum that perplexes him. Thorvaldsen once stole a William de Kooning drawing that had been erased by Robert Rauschenberg. Thorvaldsen seems to aspire to invisibility in order to be subject to endless interpretation - just like God who also disappeared from His creation - and thus become immortal. He needs a witness to spread the story. But does Locher understand what he is witnessing? Thorvaldsen subtly informs the gallery owner that he had missed the essence of the painting that once awakened his interest in art: ‘The Fall of Icarus’ by Pieter Breughel. The body of Perdrix, murdered by Daedalus, which is concealed under the bushes, was only seen for the first time in 1935. For centuries, it formed a blind spot in art criticism - it had also escaped the art historian Locher.
Partly as a result - anxious not to miss further significance - Locher’s imagination begins to run riot. He becomes increasingly entangled in possible interpretations of Thorvaldsen’s intentions. Locher ultimately believes that, during the ascent of the mountain, he even has to murder the artist as a component of the latter’s artistic plan to vanish. Locher’s craving for interpretation, which gradually becomes paranoid, infects the reader, who begins to ask just how much credence ought to be attached to Locher’s account. This all makes Becoming God a fascinating and enjoyable novel, due to the ironic descriptions of the art scene in which fashion, social refinement, and presentation are more important than content. Moreover, Den Hartog Jager relates his narrative with verve. The dialogues are sharp, while the descriptions are light-footed and convincing, which is an additionally remarkable achievement in view of the complex theme.