Father and son
Datumloze dagen (Numberless Days), Jeroen Brouwers’ latest novel, incorporates a thunderous symphony of death. In his rich oeuvre this virtuoso author has consistently given voice to melancholy. Death plays a central role in all his novels, as well as in many of his essays.
Datumloze dagen is a short, dark novel about a father and a son, told retrospectively by the father in one long, strangling monologue: ‘A hateful memory suddenly slips into your brain, like a burglar throwing a piano wire over your head and tightening it round your throat.’ The nameless father got married young, and almost immediately realized that marriage was not for him. ‘I had the feeling that my life had become void of dates and that it would remain this way, the feeling that time was rushing blankly past me and I was leading a non-existence.’
His wife Mirjam wanted to save the ‘festering’ marriage by having a baby. Her husband resisted, lying next to her in bed like ‘a rigid mummy in a sarcophagus’, but she managed to seduce him during a stay in Venice — ‘sun, stand still!’ — a city that traditionally symbolises death. Brouwers’ narrative, heavy with foreboding like all his books, is jam-packed with symbolism and references to classical myths and literature. Every word and letter has a double meaning. Nathan (meaning ‘gift of God’) is born against his father’s explicit wishes.
His parents’ marriage runs aground soon after due to his father’s urge to cheat on his wife. For years the father doesn’t see his son, and almost forgets that he exists. Years later two seemingly coincidental, awkward meetings take place. ‘What is worse than not having a father? Having one.’ Shamefully the father doesn’t recognize his son, and consequently the son no longer wants to know the father. This changes when Nathan comes down with a mysterious, lethal blood disease, haemophagocytosis.
The father returns to the hospital, to Nathan’s sickbed, where the approach of death unites father and son in a horrifying climax. Exactly because the father has been a bastard, a selfish lecher, because of the bitter shame that finally overwhelms him, and because of the author’s honest, uncompromising, almost crushing description of his acts and thoughts, the poignancy and sadness of the final pages crash over the reader like a wave. A deeply melancholic, honest, and masterful novel.