Holland’s sharpest stylist in top form: a controversial story of crime and punishment
‘Quite right,’ was Gerrit Krol’s characteristically laconic response upon being awarded the most important literary award in the Netherlands. Quite rightly indeed, the jury stated that Krol’s works are an abundance that never tires: ‘Krol approaches everything he creates like a new-born babe: he never loses his sense of astonishment or his openness.’ Krol’s themes are surprising, but his way with words is even less conventional. His novels tend towards poetry, his poems are prosaic, and his essays read like short stories.
In his latest novel, Gerrit Krol once again proves his stylistic ability. He presents his reader not with a continuous story, but with a collection of prose passages that, together, make up a whole. Krol is a past master at making light of serious situations by being grave and witty at the same time. His view of the world is built of contradictions. His latest novel is no exception: in it he presents a murder as a ‘vitalistic’ act. When Johan, a brilliant but unworldly mathematics professor kills and subsequently rapes Barbara, this gives him the feeling of actually having lived for the first time. ‘This,’ writes Krol, ‘is the story of a renaissance.’
Johan manages to conceal the murder for a long time: ‘It was not the taking of her life that was his mistake, but the fact that he kept quiet about it’. When his grisly deed is finally discovered, this sparks heavy discussion in Johan’s circle of friends - of which Barbara was also part - about guilt and penance, crime and punishment. Their discussion echoes the controversial essay in which Krol argued against the complete abolition of the death penalty.
The novel allows Krol to go one step further. He unleashes, as it were - in the tradition of the nineteenth-century vitalist - an ethical experiment on his characters. Can someone commit a murder without harbouring guilty feelings about it? Can murder be defensible? When his deed comes to light, Johan is rejected by his friends, but remains likeable. Krol leaves judgement to the reader. After all: ‘Man is good, but he is bad. He is good at the front and bad at the back. The front is white and may be seen. The back is black and may not be seen.’