A masterly, wistful tale about two men and a dying profession
Who decides what’s a metre? How do you establish what a ‘kilo’ really means? How do you prevent people from cheating in science, industry or business? Dijk brings back to life the vanishing world of measuring instruments and standards. What concerns Van den Brink is not that the world has changed, but how it has changed.
Two men, Karl Dijk and the narrator, have worked for many years at what used to be called the Department of Weights and Measures, but now goes by the name Metrifact. Dijk, a man of few words, tends to keep to himself. The narrator is asked to give a speech at a farewell reception for his enigmatic colleague, but Dijk fails to show up at his own party. Bit by bit, as Dijk starts to haung the narrator’s dreams, the reasons for his disappearance come to light.
In this evocative novel Van den Brink delves deeply into the history of the world of weights and measures and its revolutionary upheavals. It is also the story of two men who have kept each other at arm’s length. Who was that stiff-necked odd duck? The author skilfully peels away the classic assumptions about the secrets people carry, which also gives him a chance to bring up the past. What was life like in the years before the digital revolution? What did people talk about?
The impending changes to the civil servant’s way of life prompt fear and despair, as does the agency’s privatization, with its attendant horrors and uncertain- ties, as set against the reliability of meas- urement standards, which brook no guesswork. Measurements are dependable and true; man cheats and chisels. Van den Brink succeeds in weaving this theme throughout the novel at every level without giving too much away.
The narrator’s increasing bewilderment over how little he really knows about his colleague deepens the book’s poignancy. Still, we do come away with a picture of that strange character Karl Dijk in the end, and catch some glimpses of his dark past. What concerns Van den Brink is not that the world has changed, but how that world has changed. Because we ourselves have lost our yardsticks and our standards.