A bold historical novel about the quest for freedom and knowledge, set in the Golden Age and the present day
In Free Man, Nelleke Noordervliet makes full use of the freedom that a storyteller has. In the novel’s opening scene she describes her own encounter with her protagonist at the Dutch Reformed Church in Woodstock, New York. Together with this man, Menno Molenaar, who is lost in the 21st century, she travels back to the 17th-century Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.
Menno Molenaar is the son of a Rotterdam doctor and, like his father, he is fascinated by new scientific insights. He wants to study medicine but, following his father’s death, the family’s assets prove insufficient. With financial support from the city of Rotterdam, he embarks upon a theology course at the University of Leiden, where he finds himself moving in the same circles as Spinoza and Adriaan Koerbagh. These philosophers and scientists accept him as their equal and stand by him when he is banished from the university for smuggling in a prostitute. Menno is guided not only by high ideals, but also by a weakness for drink and women.
Noordervliet’s treatment of historical figures is not without risks for the credibility of the novel, but she brings all of her characters convincingly to life, partly because of the distinctive voices that she gives them. One such example is Henry Dixon, a hard-of-hearing English merchant who lives in Leiden and who takes Menno into his service and continues to support him – even though Menno eagerly surrenders to his wife’s sexual advances. Dixon sends Menno to The Hague to work as a clerk in the service of Grand Pensionary De Witt, where he gathers information about the Republic.
Menno feels constrained by the power that Dixon has over him, but is not overly concerned and still acts as a free agent, passing on information not only to Dixon, but also to Van Aitzema, a diplomat and spy. Menno becomes increasingly entangled in a web of circumstances, which leads to Dixon’s murder and Menno’s escape to the New World, where he intends to start over.
The ins and outs of life in 17th-century Holland, the politics of the Republic, life as a pioneer in America, historical figures such as Koerbagh, Spinoza and De Witt – all of this is brought beautifully to life in Free Man. When the writer puts down her pen and leaves her protagonist behind, what remains for the reader is a sense of longing for the world conjured up by Noordervliet’s words.