All about Tristan
Entrusted with a secret that cannot be revealed
Novels where the biographer plays the role of the hero could almost be said to be in a genre of their own. The reader looks over the biographer’s shoulder as he unravels the mysteries of his subject’s life, becoming entangled in it himself in the process. It’s an appealing form, done notably by Paul Auster in The Book of Illusions. Tommy Wieringa in All about Tristan makes the same attempt and succeeds.
The narrator here is Jacob Keller, a university teacher and admirer of the poet Viktor Tristan who remains as popular twenty years after his untimely death as before, due to his innovative poetry and the enigmas surrounding his life. After two brilliant volumes of his poetry were published, Tristan left for the island of Lago to become a coffee-plantation owner; he died in an earthquake.
Keller encounters a wall of silence in his research. The widow of his former professor refuses to let him look at her husband’s papers, and Tristan’s friends and acquaintances Keller encounters totally fail to cooperate. At last Keller manages through the poet’s dead sister, to track down the great tragedy that dominated Tristan’s life, that everyone wanted to keep hidden. The tragedy is partly linked to Keller’s own affair with Mariam, a librarian at the library where he goes almost daily for his research. As Keller penetrates ever deeper into Tristan’s secret, personal interests and potential scandal make his task as biographer, to reveal the truth, impossible, and Tristan’s work is put in a very different light.
By this time Keller has long since lost all interest in disclosure. So the book ends in a paradox. Keller – and the reader – do come to know everything about Tristan, but that information has to remain secret, and Wieringa’s paradoxical ending is precisely what creates an unprecedented bond between story and reader. To be entrusted with a secret that cannot be revealed – this is perhaps the ultimate literary experience. Keller’s mission as biographer may have failed, but the novel in which he figures is a total success. That this is so is not only due to the plot, but also to the Mediterranean atmosphere that Wieringa flamboyantly evokes; the melancholy of a past, quasi-colonial era; the lyrical passages about love awakening, and the description of a boat trip to a remote tropical island where oppressive, sweltering heat, poverty and beauty, are all too vivid. In All about Tristan everything conspires to carry the reader away in an unparalleled literary adventure.