Wonderful tale of initiation
Anton Valens’ characters invariably attempt to make an unknown world their own. In his widely praised debut Meesters in de hygiëne (‘Master in Hygiene’, 2004) the central character is an art student who works as cleaner for lonely elderly people and becomes caught up in their life stories. In the novella Vis (‘Fish’) we meet an unemployed artist who having signed up with a fishing boat that trawls the bottom of the Wadden Sea for plaice, dab and sole soon has to revise any romantic notion he had about fishing.
Life on board is tough. Between casting and hauling in the nets there are only a few hours to sleep and to eat. The work itself is dirty and cruel. The fish are gutted alive, stripped of their entrails with a knife. As for the crew, the atmosphere between them is tense in the extreme. The narrator’s friends Addie and Fred in particular, who found him the job, do not get along. By refusing to take sides, the narrator throws away any chance of getting to know Fred better. He remains an outsider, all the more so after the captain is heavily fined for gutting undersized fish and the blame falls on him.
His insecure position and his artistic calling make the narrator an ideal observer. The descriptions of overpowering nature are intense. Valens paints the intricate and subtle colours of the sea and sky - their greys, greens and blue, shot through with gold and silver light from the sun and the moon - contrasting them with the inferno down in the hold and the kitchen: hot and filthy and dominated by the pounding of engines. Against this background the story grows menacing, a mood reinforced by references to the biblical story of Jonah and to Melville’s Moby Dick. Of course hunting for flatfish has little in common with whaling and the captain of the DH731 does not resemble the vengeful Ahab. But like Melville, Valens creates an oppressive atmosphere and steers his novella towards a fateful conclusion.