De onzichtbare jongen
Bernlef’s eleventh novel presents several familiar themes, such as the workings of memory and the curious role of perception. Where in his best seller Hersenschimmen (‘Chimeras’) there are gaps in the memory, this novel centres on remembering. ‘Every blade of grass, every light beam, every ridge in every stone, all those things separately remembered.’ This too is apparently difficult to live with.
De onzichtbare jongen is about friendship, ‘the kind of friendship that can only exist between boys of a certain age’. Narrator Wouter is fascinated by a newcomer in his class. Max knows piano music by heart and is able to reproduce anything he has read. Wouter is good at athletics, the 100 metres. One training night he even defeats London Olympic champion Fanny Blankers-Koen. While Wouter is interested in movement and speed, Max is into the invisible world of physics. He builds a wind-gauge on the balcony to capture the world in figures. After their school exams they take on vacation employment at a bank calculating customers’ depositor interest. Max stays on because he works twice as fast as the other holiday workers.
Then, a few years later, Wouter literally comes to a standstill. A mysterious affliction renders him unable to walk. He moves very slowly, which, he discovers, influences his perception. Grass loses its meaning because he sees each individual blade. He stops at ‘every plant, every pebble’.
On one of his therapeutic walks he sees his old friend at the neighbouring psychiatric hospital. They meet at the psychiatrist’s request. Max, it turns out, can’t forget anything. His head ‘collapses’ under the weight of all those memories. Because of his own experience, Wouter understands how threatening all those details are. He finally appears to be on intimate terms with Max but he can’t help him. At the end of the novel it becomes clear that Max has walked out into the sea during a storm. At Max’ funeral Wouter meets Max’ half-sister, who, as a kind of consolation, looks exactly like her brother.