Though – according to the German critic-cum-oracle Marcel Reich-Ranicki – literary tomes belong back in the era of the stagecoach, when people were still expected to combat boredom with reading, contemporary writers haven’t taken the slightest notice of this harsh position. Confining ourselves to Holland: one and a half years after Mulisch’s novel De ontdekking van de hemel (The Discovery of Heaven), the size of which prompted Reich-Ranicki to make the aforementioned statement, there is once again a giant novel of high quality in the bookstores.
Rosenboom worked for just under ten years on Gewassen vlees, after getting hold of an eighteenth-century bailiff’s journal. Starting with this particular, Rosenboom began building his cathedral – a term which would please him; he does so enjoy exaggerations and disapproves of nuances –, far more human and vulgar than the dry, authentic journal. He thought up a name for his main character, Willem Augustijn van Donck, a Frisian mayor’s son, appointed bailiff of Hulst, who tries to win the favor of his father and mankind by devoting himself to the development of a process for making new sugar. White sugar, that is. Pure and unadulterated. The sugar of the future.
Contrasting with this lofty task, which leads Rosenboom to use high-flown archaic expressions and comparisons, are the main character’s concerns for his beloved Catherina Saffraan, who dumps him, and his obsession with everything in the way of faeces and gas which, whether or not controlled, whether or not desired, is expelled from his rear end – and which, just like sugar production, is the result of a chemical process, albeit with a less wholesome effect. And although an enema appears to hit a comic note, the discomfort which undoubtedly seizes the reader here is nothing compared to the intense effect of the demise of Van Donck, which is the result of intrigue, vanity, secret delight at another’s misfortune, and drudgery so disconcerting it makes your stomach turn.
Willem Augustijn’s meeting with his despised half-brother and demanding father is both revealing and fatal. Rosenboom, who researched the political, economic and philosophical aspects of eighteenth-century Holland with obvious gusto, has combined this knowledge with his predilection for filth. Cloaked in archaic idiom, Gewassen vlees is a novel that makes you open your eyes wide and pinch your nose firmly shut. Such a book could never have been written in the era of the stagecoach. Rosenboom himself has said that he threw himself into writing with the urgency of a maniac, and for years allowed himself practically no diversions. That comes as no surprise. This novel, which may be considered his masterpiece, astounds and entertains by its extremity.