Intriguing novel of ideas
How can you be principled when in power? This novel of ideas is about corruption. Michiel van Straten, an environmental activist, has been appointed Minister for Technology and the Environment. He enjoys his new role, but the novel gradually reveals how he is struggling.
How does the Minister, living now in a luxury canal house in the centre of Amsterdam, relate to the person he once was, one who lived in a squat, organising activities which bordered on terrorism? Or has Michiel always been the politician he is today? These provocative questions apply to quite a few modern-day European politicians (Joschka Fischer, for one).
The novel opens with Michiel’s inaugural celebrations. His former fellow activists, his new friends from the Progressive Party, his fashionable new girlfriend, his daughter, and his oldest friend are all at the party. Then his ex-wife arrives – and all the main characters are assembled. At the same time, the first cracks between Michiel’s past and future begin to show.
The new Minister starts with fresh energy, but soon realises how dependent he is on his officials. His diary is filled up for him, making it impossible for him to put his mark on policies. His mother dies before Michiel finally finds the time to visit her. He doesn’t pay enough attention to his glamorous girlfriend and when events from the past put him in a tight spot it looks as if he will go under.
Eventually, he announces his resignation in a fiery speech at a party conference. This resembles author Fresco’s career with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Her letter of resignation, leaked to The Observer, contained strong criticism of the FAO’s lack of decisiveness.
Fresco, like the protagonists of De utopisten (The Utopians), is driven by idealism, and this shows in her new novel as well as in her scientific and managerial work. In Het Financieele Dagblad she says, ‘For many years I’ve been writing both fictional and factual pieces about distance and engagement. When you are involved, you lose your perspective. If you keep too much of a distance, you become indifferent.’
For a long time, politics and social engagement were rare in Dutch literature. But that changed recently with Vladiwostok! (Vladivostok!) by P.F. Thomése, De literaire kring (The Literary Circle) by Marjolijn Februari and now De utopisten by Louise O. Fresco.