The novel’s nameless main character is a young man who has been given the task of cataloguing an ancient library’s collection of precious manuscripts and incunabula. Ensconced in a hexagonal crypt between statues symbolising the ‘seven liberal arts’, he sits down at his computer and starts familiarising himself with the achievements of his forebears. He soon finds himself confronted with questions.
Strange messages (about the sun disappearing into a black hole) reach him via the Internet. René, his predecessor in the job, was a computer fanatic who suffered a stroke in the same crypt. Now hospitalised and paralysed in all but two fingers, this dangerous caricature of Stephen Hawking continues to concoct his all-encompassing plans.
Another character is the head librarian Inez, who codifies men and women as if they were books. She and René both believe in applying systems to keep the world orderly. In a sense they are victims of thinking in symbols and structures. After all, who can prove that the world is governed by neither God nor chaos?
Verhelst has a predilection for emphatic contrasts and presents his vacillating narrator and the dancer Lore as René and Inez’s opposites. Lore aspires to ‘the art of unlearning’. She traces meaningless figures and believes that all closed structures are ‘by definition suicidal’. When a statue in the crypt breaks and packages containing human remains are discovered inside, all the characters become ingeniously entangled in a thriller. Few of the characters emerge unscathed.
Peter Verhelst maintains absolute control over this multifaceted novel. Vivid, poetic and intriguingly confusing, the book keeps its reader wide-awake, shakes him up and, finally, plunges him into a black hole. At one point the narrator overhears a restaurateur saying: ‘It’s the game that counts.’ The reader of Het spierenalfabet cannot but endorse that sentiment.