Het A.P. Beerta Instituut (Het Bureau 4)
The fourth volume of Voskuil’s The Bureau: the Dutch counterpart of the Great American Novel
Interest in the megalomaniac novel cycle Het Bureau, is starting to assume unprecedented proportions. The appearance of the fourth part of the ‘world’s longest novel’ was a major news item and people rushed to the bookshops to pick up their copy of the latest volume. Readers who have followed Maarten Koning, Voskuil’s alter ego, through the first three volumes find themselves hooked on Koning’s melancholy musings, his acuteness and his merciless descriptions of his colleagues.
Many people are no doubt shocked and amused to recognise situations from their own workplace. What makes Het Bureau so special? For a start, of course, its sheer size. In no other novel is the daily routine at work described at such length. ‘This book couldn’t be any shorter,’ said Voskuil in an interview. ‘When you work in an institute like mine, it takes a long time to get to know everyone. Everyone is so identified with their role that really dramatic events don’t occur. Only after years does everyone gradually emerge as an individual. It’s only in the details that you make discoveries.’
Voskuil is right. In the seven volumes that will eventually make up the cycle, every little wave, every ripple is described so tellingly that the reader is never bored. The grating repetitions, typical gestures and expressions - as in a soap opera - have a hypnotic effect. Voskuil’s penetrating style fits in perfectly with the ethos of the Office: unadorned and scholarly precision. It is the combination of size and detail that enables the reader to experience both the humour and the underlying tragedy of Maarten Koning. Het A.P. Beerta-instituut, the fourth volume, also forms a chronicle of the 1970s and the way that the changes in society in this decade are commented upon by the people at the Bureau.
At the same time all these elaborate rituals typify the hopelessness of Maarten Koning’s life and work. Even though he does not believe in the value of scholarly research, he sees it as his duty to stay, finish his work and maintain the illusion of solidarity with his colleagues. All is futile. Het bureau is a profoundly comical, detailed and moving depiction of that world of bosses and wage slaves which ultimately imprisons everyone.