To the Other Side of the Night
The true meaning of Carnival
Van Mersbergen’s work invariably focuses on characters who have a highly developed emotional life yet are barely able to articulate their feelings in concrete terms, let alone to change anything about their situation. They are therefore typical loners, who manage to inspire robust compassion in the reader, in novel after novel. With To the Other Side of the Night, Van Mersbergen demonstrates he has attained perfect command of his art.
The novel is about carnival, or Vastelaovond, as people in Limburg call the festival on the eve of the forty days of fasting that leads up to Easter. Ralf has been persuaded by his uncle to come to his old hometown and celebrate. After having said goodbye to his girlfriend and children, he joins the revelry, dressed up as a ferryman. He soon loses track of his uncle in the bustle of brass bands and drunken crowds, and does not remain sober himself either.
In a fuddle of alcohol reminiscent of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, he reports on many encounters, including one with a group of Mexicans, a sunflower called Sunny and someone disguised as a priest. The latter tells him it’s only at Carnival that people finally become who they are. As Ralf exhausts himself physically, he gets to the core of his existence, the most important feature of which is his desire to be a good father. What does he really want? Simply to care for his children, to give them ‘love, warmth and apple juice’.
Van Mersbergen circles artfully around that core. The more Ralf drinks, the more powerful and harrowing his story becomes: the children are not actually his, the youngest two are deaf and blind, he cares for them at night because their mother no longer can, and so it goes on.
In this deeply moving story about ordinary people, celebrating Carnival means plumbing the depths and emerging purified.