Controversial caricatures and masterful prose
The publication of Mystical Body caused a sensation in the Dutch literary establishment; a number of leading critics accused Kellendonk of anti-Semitism. This was a serious accusation which led other critics to reach for their pens to defend the writer and refute the charge. So who was right? While Kellendonk employs a number of clichéd images that have traditionally been projected onto Jews, he does so in such a way that the clichés are always recognisable as such. At no point does he actually endorse these views himself. A possible problem for the critics is the ironic way that Kellendonk plays with stereotypes in general, not just those associated with Jews. Kellendonk couples these images with ideas about life and death, art and religion. The bizarre contrasts that this produces can scarcely be interpreted any other way than ironically.
Certainly, he presents an anti-Semitic character – Catholic businessman Gijselhart (who, paradoxically enough, most resembles the cliché of the Jewish miser). He vents his anti- Semitic ideas when he learns that his daughter Magda has gotten pregnant by the Jewish Bruno Pechman. She has come home to have her baby in peace. The arrival of the child will give Gijselhart his humanity back, as he renounces his materialism and tones down his objectionable ideas.
Gijselhart’s homosexual son, the art historian Leendert (‘Broer’), just back from New York and suffering from a deadly virus, turns up unexpectedly at his estate. The lover from whom he caught the virus has just died, and to Leendert’s disappointment, the art world is turning out to be run by men who worship money, not beauty. Homosexuals, he says bitterly, live outside history: to him the pregnant Magda represents human and divine creativity, the church sanctifies heterosexuality, while the homosexual’s bride is Death.
Leendert’s hatred of Bruno should not be seen as a manifestation of anti-Semitism but as an expression of the contrast between life and death, hope and despair, between the vitality of life and the art’s futile attempts to equal it. Nevertheless, art – like the union of man and woman – is able to produce a mystical body, as Kellendonk proves with this novel.