Chasing ghosts on Chinese hell’s island
Novels by Allard Schröder invariably take place in a shadowy realm, on the borders of life and death. The setting always has its own peculiar significance – due partly to Schröder’s marvellous descriptions of atmosphere and landscape. In De hydrograaf (The Hydrographer), which won the AKO Literature Prize, the ship in which the main characters make their long voyage becomes a kind of Flying Dutchman. In his previous book, De econome (The Economist, 2008), an ambitious businesswoman loses herself in a no-man’s land.
Amoy is set on Go Long Su, which the famous Dutch poet and ship’s doctor J.J. Slauerhoff called in his work ‘Spring Island’, off the coast of Amoy, the Chinese port. Whereas Slauerhoff endowed this curious island with charm, since it seemed to enjoy an eternal spring, in Schröder’s hands there is something threatening about it from the start. It’s like the peak of a volcano: ‘While the town of Amoy across the water slowly went out, the little island gradually started to glow, like a smouldering mountain of cinders in which the fire was visible only at night.’
The island holds lawyer Louis Seghers in an intoxicating embrace from the moment he first steps ashore on 1 August 1937. He has come to the island to search for Freyler, a businessman who lived and worked on Amoy before vanishing without trace. He is also trying to escape his conventional and predictable colonial, middle-class fate (another constant in Schröder’s writing).
Seghers had kept body and soul together from his earnings at bridge, always playing safe while secretly dreaming of a brand-new existence. Until he arrived on Amoy he felt part of a big, dreamy painting that hung unnoticed on the wall somewhere for decades. ‘People sat under it, stood in front of it talking and laughing, they worked with their backs to it, hurried past – not a soul ever looked at it.’
The lawyer’s arrival does not pass unnoticed on the island, especially since the guileless Seghers is the spitting image of the man he has come to search for. The longer he hunts for Freyler and the closer he feels he is getting, the more the two men converge. ‘Perhaps you’re actually investigating yourself.’ He moves into Freyler’s house and even wears his clothes. ‘Patroclus in Achilles’ armour.’
For Seghers, Freyler – whom the reader quickly realises an arms and opium dealer – is a man he would have liked to be, someone with a real life. ‘Do I want to be who I am?’ Seghers asks his reflection in the mirror. ‘If not, why isn’t that what I want?’ But he does not know the answer. He chases the ghost of his doppelganger and loses himself in his love for Grace Dan, the enchantingly beautiful wife of a rich Chinese businessman, whom Freyler also coveted. To a degree he accomplishes his mission (and makes a gruesome discovery) but it is clear that Louis Seghers is doomed. When the Second World War breaks out and the Japanese take Go Long Su, he loses Grace Dan and is forced to leave. He steps back into the dreamy painting, as it were, the one nobody ever looks at. Meanwhile Allard Schröder has succeeded in capturing the bright flashes within Seghers’ lonely existence, his dreams and his deeds, in a magnificent, melancholic style and atmosphere.