Love and Don’t Look Back
Sensuality, ripening and decay
Over the last few decades Willem G. van Maanen has composed a wonderful and penetrating body of work in relative silence. His novels and stories are ambiguous and attest to an obstinate ethic. Those who surrender themselves to it are rewarded with deep and authentic insights into our existence. This exceptional quality also characterizes Heb lief en zie niet om (Love and Don’t Look Back). The title may contain a tender encouragement, but the characters do quite a bit of looking back at a dark past, with disastrous consequences.
Love and Don’t Look Back is a diptych. The first section relates the story of an actor, low of stature and in morals. He marries a Jewish girl during the German occupation and joins the Kultuurkamer (Chambre of Culture) at the same time – an institution established during the Second World War by the Germans that (performing) artists, writers and musicians were supposed to join. The actor in question does what many did during the war: he saves himself by entering a twilight zone. The young boy living next door to the actor, Sally, dies within the first pages. The second section consists of a monologue written by Sally’s mother as a means of coping with the loss of her son. In this section, a man, who the reader might recognize as the adult version of the dead boy, goes back to the place he had been in hiding during the war.
The two stories are ingenious reflections of each other. Van Maanen plays a clever game with the identities of the two protagonists – the cheating actor and the boy in hiding. At times he places them at opposing poles, while at other times they seem to merge. He addresses one of the essential topics in history: our inability to make choices in extreme circumstances. ‘For some the war was resistance, for some betrayal, for some indifference or resignation, and for others persecution and annihilation. For me, if I leave the dead be, it was nothing more or less, apparently, than awakening and finally awakened sensuality, ripening and decay, and despite everything the belief in that dear lie for which we must forgive ourselves and each other.’
With this, the novel’s final sentence, Van Maanen demonstrates the merciless and at the same time melodious manner in which he has crafted his story. His long, rhythmic sentences are exceptionally beautiful and have tremendous evocative power, while allowing a sense of mystery to remain.