A scintillating novel about a world in motion
Steam is a captivating novel about a turning point in Dutch history: the general strike of 1903. Railroad workers fought for their right to form a union and negotiate their position. Forced to choose between freedom and solidarity, the main character, Maarten Corbelijn, opts for freedom, at least initially.
Corbelijn is the son of a railwayman who is run over and killed by his own shunting locomotive. He flees his home town along the waterways when he discovers that his mother is having an affair with the director of the brickworks factory. He signs on as a boat-hand and, via various twists and turns, becomes a gauger, the man who checks ship’s cargoes. Corbelijn is not self-employed, but does work without supervision. Women throw themselves at him: the bargee’s wife, Marie, takes him to the strangest locations to make love.
An encounter with an old school friend in Deventer is the impulse to give up this free but lonely life. He falls in love with Klaartje, restores the bond with his mother, and makes plans to study law. Maarten suddenly knows where he belongs: with his mother, his friends, Klaartje, and the socialists.
The novel is a tribute to Dutch poet and socialist Herman Gorter. When the general strike of 1903 takes place, Maarten is allowed to ride on the locomotive. In his excitement, Maarten suddenly understands Gorter ‘with his feeling that he would like to do something for everyone, and yet have the whole country for himself and his loved ones alone’. Gorter’s two facets, poetry and socialism, are united. Maarten opts for the workers’ side. Heralded by steam engines, new times seem to be on their way, with changing social relationships and codes of behaviour.
With Stoom, Van Toorn tells a story that fascinates from the first page to the last. He is sober in his articulation and skilful in his stylistic devices by contrasting Maarten’s thoughts with what he says in the confrontation with his mother, for example – and while constructing a credible historical décor.
Time is tangible without being obtrusive. The novel covers the general strike but it is also a bildungsroman about a boy who grows up without a father and has to find his own way in the world.