Judgement by Shards
A great American novel from a European point of view
A.F.Th. van der Heijden’s thick new novel Het schervengericht (Judgement by Shards), with its familiar yet strange and unsettling story, surprises the reader at every twist and turn. The action takes place within only a few months at the turn of 1977/1978, and the setting is limited to the Choreo prison in San Bernardino, California, U.S.A.
A famous movie director has to do time – a few months – for statutory rape. In order to survive, he has disguised himself, growing a heavy beard, entering the prison on platform shoes to camouflage his short stature, and taking on the name of Remo Woodehouse. Remo is locked in a small section with only one other prisoner, who says that his name is Scott Maddox.
This Scott Maddox – who is just as short as Remo – hides behind a mask that he cannot take off; his head has been swathed in bandages since the day that a lunatic set him on fire and his face had flamed like the head of a match. Scott and Remo are assigned to clean the halls and dirty cells of Choreo, and as they mop, they fence verbally with each other, their rapierlike mops creating a pattern of mazes on the granite floors. Two maze patterns emerge, one mirroring the other, as the men pry into the other’s true identity and history. What emerges is that Remo had a beautiful wife Sharon who was viciously murdered several years previously while eight months pregnant. And Scott Maddox, who in the mirror calls himself Charlie, and who has malicious, Messianic qualities, considers himself a political prisoner. This is where the reader will recognise what Van der Heijden’s story is based on: the gruesome murder in Beverly Hills on 9 August 1969 of Sharon Tate, wife of Roman Polanski, by members of the ‘Family’, Charles Manson’s sect. The two main characters also discover the other’s true self: one the director of light, the other the director of blood.
Questions concerning the circumstances of the murder and why Scott Maddox’s followers carried out this bizarre deed sweep the reader along through the double maze to the inevitable conclusion.
The novel’s power doesn’t lie in a narration of facts. Van der Heijden has not written literary non-fiction like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
Rather, he subordinates facts to his fiction and his very personal obsessions and subject matter: man’s true nature and his desire to escape time and identity.
Van der Heijden’s sparkling metaphors, his eye for fascinating detail, and his power to forge a new, ingenious, and mythic story from the detail, makes Judgement by Shards breathtaking.