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Extremely absorbing novel about religious mania
In November 1910, Professor P. Rijnierse was startled by a telegram from the public prosecutor of A. which contained the following: ‘Come over as soon as possible. Religious mania in R. One victim already dead, situation grave.’ This telegram heads a psychiatric report in which the professor has tried to reconstruct the circumstances of the murder. A man posing as a minister supposedly got a hold over the family of a fanatically religious arable farmer. The minister preached on the farm, was supposedly possessed by the devil, and one evening was gruesomely murdered in the unbearably hot kitchen. ‘Struck down by God’s hand.’
This psychiatric report in turn forms the prologue of The Last Days, the first novel of Arjan Visser who already has a reputation as a gifted journalist. Surprisingly, this apocalyptic novel is not at all journalistic. Arjan Visser has written a real novel. This is due to his exciting style and, especially, to the novel’s surprising and fascinating structure. The Last Days contains a chronicle of a death foretold, yet tension is sustained throughout the story.
Visser tells two separate stories that become entangled in the last part of the book, before the violent ending. The first is that of Cornelis D. Boon, a family doctor addicted to opium. The doctor takes advantage of his female patients and is severely punished for this by his wife Nella. When a young woman announces one day that she is pregnant with the doctor’s baby, Nella buys off the woman and gives the baby to another woman. Only eighteen years later does Nella tell her husband that he is the father of a son, an announcement that unhinges the doctor – who was already unbalanced by great quantities of opium. He leaves the house and never returns.
The second story takes place at ‘Witte Sluis’, Simon Kapteyn’s farm. After years of deep-rooted faith in God and a life of iron regularity, Simon becomes dissatisfied. His wife Louise is sullen and spiteful. She fills her son with hate against his narrow-minded father, and doesn’t stop – not even when her husband’s health deteriorates. Simon pins his hopes on Johannes Peregrino, a prophesying drifter who one day walked onto his land across the frozen river. The coming of this prophet turns out violently, as predicted, but differently from what one would expect. In The Last Days Arjan Visser has drawn brilliant comic-diabolical portraits of Cornelis C. Boon (who for a time believed he was Tolstoy and started speaking a hilariously invented Russian) and of the prophet Pelegrino who, looking back, might even be one and the same person. What is clever is that the scenes with an irresistibly comic undertone and those with tragic and religious mania remain distinct. Visser has also managed to describe the raw, rustic farm life of Simon Kapteyn: the cold, the deprivations, the love for the pig that has to be slaughtered, and the terrible, insistent predictability of an existence that he would so much like to escape.
In short, The Last Days is more than a smoothly flowing and exciting novel, it is also an impressive and moving work about the destructive power of the imagination.