Anything Can Break
Stylistic virtuosity and compassion
Alles kan kapot (Anything Can Break) moves between Arnhem, Germany, Vienna, Lesbos and New York and spans three generations in the life of a family. Starting in the present, we accompany the characters on a journey ever deeper into the past, witnessing the events that shaped them. The book ends in 1945, when Grandfather Ambrosius decides to make a fresh start and say nothing about the violence he saw and endured as a factory worker in southern Germany during the war. By that point, we know that this man will later damage his yet unborn daughter Merel, dooming her to a lifetime of silence and isolation. And even before that, at the start of the story in 2011, we have learned how Merel’s experiences influenced her children; the sensitive Jonathan, who has no idea how to cope with his mother’s pain, and the resilient Serafine, who learns to express herself through art.
Serafine is one of the pivotal characters in the book. The love of her life is the sensual Kat, who sometimes explodes into fits of violence, physically attacking Serafine and destroying her works of art. But Serafine remains undaunted, always using the shards to create something new. Her creations give rise to fascinating and sometimes hilarious reflections on the art world. For instance, the author quotes from fictitious reviews by a number of narrow-minded art critics who ascribe intentions to Serafine that are utterly foreign to her.
Knol himself understands the art of seeing like nobody else. His boundless curiosity and powers of observation give rise to a vivid, sensuous narrative style. A fall from a ladder, for instance, which takes a few seconds at most, is teased out into a blood-curdling passage that holds the attention for pages on end, culminating in an improbable but utterly credible dramatic resolution.
A writer can make the most improbable – or even impossible – things possible, as Martijn Knol illustrates in passages where a character returns from the dead to demand a continuing role in the story. Moves like these disorient the reader, who must accept that not everything can be grasped by reason and is rewarded with a demonstration of why literature is so much more captivating than real life: because anything can happen.
Alles kan kapot contains brilliant passages, among the finest that Dutch literature has produced in some time. In this novel, the master stylist Knol shows us what literature is capable of, pulling out all the stops and performing audacious linguistic and formal acrobatics. And through it all, the book remains compulsively readable, thanks to his gorgeous, glorious way with language and his compassion for his characters, flesh-and-blood people who harm each other in horrifying ways, but also know how to love.