Masterly, moving triptych about a man haunted by loss
The central figure in P.F. Thomése’s seventh novel is a haunted man who lives in the shadow of a boyhood trauma. At the age of fourteen he accompanies his father on a perilous night-time swim across a river from the Nazi-occupied Netherlands into liberated territory. The father disappears without trace and the son lives on, racked by guilt that goes on to shape his life.
Thomése’s account of the life of Martin (‘Tin’) van Heel zooms in on three key episodes. It begins with the fatal river crossing in 1944 and Tin’s futile and anguished search for his missing father.
The narrative then jumps to 1974 and a fateful trip to Africa, where Tin’s wife succumbs to the brutal heat. The novel’s final section moves forward to 2004 and Tin’s deathbed in a rundown Havana hospital. The thread running through Tin’s life is his inability to lay down the burden of responsibility for the tragedies he has suffered and his inability to move on.
The Underwater Swimmer is in the form of three novellas. The story of young Tin’s wartime ordeal is tense and moving, while the account of Tin on his deathbed is profoundly sad yet rich in consolation.
The dying Tin encounters the ‘indestructible hope’ of his newfound grandson. Or was that hope within Tin all along, ‘had it swum all those years, all those miles with him, unheeded?’ The pièce de résistance is the central section, the description of the journey that Tin and his wife undertake through an African landscape in search of the child they have sponsored through a charity. It begins as a hilarious account of an expedition by xenophobic Westerners through a world they have no hope of understanding but ends in heartbreak with Tin powerless to prevent his wife’s death.
‘With all his soul he wanted to make something right. To set something straight. Return home with a story that made sense. […] He was never able to return home. Because he was to blame. He was always to blame, even now.’