A powerful and ambitious epic
Omega minor is a bildungsroman of international scope in which the author lays bare the essence of human nature – and by extension la condition humaine – against the backdrop of twentieth-century social history.
Even though the Second World War, the persecution of the Jews and the atom bomb determined the face of the twentieth century, it is not these events but people, individuals, who are central to this novel. Viewing life from a planetary perspective, Verhaeghen introduces a number of remarkable personal narratives that become increasingly interwoven with each other and with history as the book progresses.
In particular, the novel brings together the fates of three characters. In hospital in 1995, a young Flemish university employee Paul Andermans who has been beaten up by neo-Nazis in Berlin, meets an elderly Jew Jozef De Heer who has tried to take his own life. Jozef De Heer had come to Berlin from Amsterdam, escaping the first wave of persecution. He had survived Auschwitz thanks to his talent as a conjuror and later became involved in the building of the Berlin Wall. Andermans is impressed by De Heer’s story and decides to write it down. However, while he is recording these events, Paul Andermans begins to realise that Jozef De Heer has been lying to him about his life: he has been borrowing elements from a Primo Levi book and from other authors.
Back at his lodgings at the University of Potsdam, Andermans meets the Italian researcher Donatella, a woman intimately involved with professor Goldfarb. Goldfarb had managed to escape from Berlin to the United States in the nick of time, studied nuclear physics there and was enticed to Los Alamos to work in the greatest secrecy on the atom bomb. Ultimately these characters become caught up together in the book’s exciting and harrowing finale, in Berlin, fifty years to the day after the death of Hitler.
The author investigates the capacity of literature in the light of the multifaceted nature of reality. His viewpoint is that ‘the present is a flat trompe-l’oeil that only becomes three dimensional thanks to the disquieting glimmer of the past.’ In its baroque, epic narrative style and structure, in its ambition to lay bare human motivation and the course of history, in its attempt to perceive ‘science, art and memory’ as one great interwoven whole, Omega minor is a thoroughly impressive and fascinating book.