On publication of his debut novel Archibald Strohalm in 1951, Harry Mulisch was immediately recognized as a great literary talent and a new voice in post-war Dutch literature. This highly imaginative story with its bizarre characters set the tone for Mulisch’s extraordinary career as an author. He distinguished himself in the midst of the prevailing literary realism by his abstract-realist style, which clearly had the capacity to speak to an international readership.
The novel can be seen as a declaration of principle concerning the rejuvenation of art and literature. The main character is an inconspicuous young man who finds himself daily annoyed by an elderly puppeteer and the sombre shows, inspired by Christianity, that he performs on the market square. Strohalm becomes convinced that he has enough talent to challenge the puppeteer with a stimulating tale that will set audiences thinking. His struggle to describe the fullness of life in all its complexity drives him insane, making him an object of ridicule. Strohalm comes to grief, but not before he has succeeded in exposing the narrow-mindedness of his fellow citizens.
Archibald Strohalm was an astonishing debut. Mulish later said that by writing it he freed himself from the fears and uncertainties that afflict any young artist. Self-assured and formidably productive, he developed a talent for making an irresistibly readable story bear the weight of primal myths, vital questions, literary references and philosophy, including the philosophy of science.