Just as in his best-selling Kneeling on a Bed of Violets, Jan Siebelink again returned to his rigidly devout youth in a village on the banks of the River IJssel, so in his new, voluminous novel Suezkade he revisits familiar territory. In the story of Marc Cordesius, a young French teacher at the Descartes College in The Hague, the reader will recognize many elements from his earlier novels and stories with a secondary school as their setting, which is hardly a surprise since the author taught French at the Marnix College in Ede for twenty-five years.
Yet Suezkade is not a novel whose effect relies on the use of recognizably autobiographical material. On the contrary, the story of Marc Cordesius makes its considerable impact by creating a slightly surreal, rarefied, almost impalpable atmosphere, undoubtedly inspired by the French authors of the fin de siècle and the 1900s. The book is a testimony to his fondness for decadent poets and authors like Mallarmé and Huysmans, and the vitriolic, gossipy diary of the De Goncourt brothers.
Like the work of Siebelink’s much-admired predecessors, there is an unfathomable darkness about Siebelink’s latest novel right from the start. Marc Cordesius had been left a fortune by his grandmother and no longer really needs to work. His mother’s mysterious disappearance years before means that his grandmother’s death leaves him alone in the world. Marc applies for a job at the Descartes out of a love of the French language and literature, as well as the love of teaching. He hopes that his teaching career will give depth and value to his life and put him in contact with kindred spirits.
It is a vain hope. From the first page of Suezkade, cracks begin to appear in his lofty image of the school. The other teachers do not know how to deal with the aloof Marc. His colleagues feel threatened by this young, sensitive dandy with his beautiful suits. They cannot accept that he alone is permitted to decorate a classroom of his own, in a remote, abandoned part of the school, and that he works and lives entirely by his own rules. The greatest bone of contention for his fellow teachers is his unconcealed love for the brilliant Moroccan pupil Najoua.
As time goes on Marc Cordesius finds himself increasingly isolated. His colleagues turn away from him, out of fear or repugnance. He finds threatening notes in his pigeon-hole, is betrayed by the headmaster and, in a frenzy of rage, throws himself into a fight with the conventional, narrow-minded physics teacher. Meanwhile Najoua is falling prey to anorexia and Marc has to watch her slipping away.
The most fascinating aspect of Suezkade is the beauty of Marc’s tragic decline. The dark romanticism of his reflections, his forbidden love for the increasingly emaciated Najoua and his retreat into loneliness make the book irresistible. Marc realizes this himself. He wallows in injustice, heading directly for his own end like a Messiah who foresees his own crucifixion – and in his downfall he carries the reader with him to the final page.