Quest for the fragile essence of parenthood
A.F.Th. van der Heijden already had a number of ‘requiems’ to his name: for a childhood sweetheart, a cousin who died in an accident, his father, his mother and a good friend. He has proven himself able to use the subject of death to lend meaning to their lives, with great retroactive force. Looking back, these books were merely the prelude to his most recent ‘requiem novel’, a hefty book that overshadows everything that came before: Tonio.
Early on the morning of 23 May, 2010, Whit Sunday, Tonio van der Heijden, the only son of the writer and his wife, Mirjam Rotenstreich, was killed in a traffic accident. He was only 21 years old. It was a pointless event without any real culprits – Tonio had had a drink, he didn’t give way on his bike, and the driver of the car that hit him was going a little too fast. In just one moment, this combination of circumstances turned the life of Tonio’s parents into hell.
Almost immediately after receiving the news about their son – the doorbell shrieks through the hallway and two police officers inform them about the accident and Tonio’s critical condition – Van der Heijden starts his own recon- struction of events, at first unconsciously, and later deliber- ately, in perfectly honed sentences that hit home, sharp as knives.
And yet Tonio is a novel. Not because Van der Heijden, with a cool detachment, probes into the smallest details of the ill-fated circumstances. Not even because this book is a razor-sharp, emotional and personal reconstruction of his son’s life. Van der Heijden pulls no punches: he spares no one and nothing, least of all himself, and so his work carves deeply into the reader’s soul.
No, this is a real novel because of the relentless way in which the author pushes the developments and brings them to their inevitable conclusion, interweaving the heartbreaking present with the horror of the accident. The composition of Tonio is raw, immediate, full of repetition, circular trains of thought, dark shortcuts and false trails – and so it represents the blueprint of mourning.
The conclusion of Tonio takes the reader’s breath away. Because of the visit to the site of the accident, against the backdrop of a celebrating city. Because of the gradual revelation of the true nature of the relationship between Tonio and the enigmatic Jenny. But primarily because of the passage in which Van der Heijden uses his words to accompany his son on that fateful night, for the very last time. Warning him. Talking to him. Gently attempting, in fiction, to make him go the other way and come home safely: ‘I beg you: turn left.’
This is the cruel paradox of Tonio. None of the artist’s weapons misses its target. Van der Heijden, increasingly mercilessly, nails his readers to their seats. But his son, his ‘best piece of prose’, will never return to him.