At the End of the Day
A major novel about growing older, failure and survival
Nelleke Noordervliet’s latest novel, At the End of the Day, opens with a well-known photograph of the Swiss-German writer Robert Walser, who was found dead in the snow on Christmas Day 1956. Seeing the photo casts Katharina Mercedes Donker’s mind back to that same day in her own life.
She was a teenager, sitting at the kitchen table in her parental home, attempting to read L’Étranger by Camus in French; an oppressive family scene that might spontaneously combust at any moment. Her father had volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War and it had left him traumatized. His wife often served as a sitting target for his aggression. Katharina’s twin sisters managed to withdraw from the drama, but she was right there in the midst of it.
This reminiscing has everything to do with a recent request from a young academic, who wants to write a biography of Katharina, a former politician and author of two bestsellers about politics and the role of women. Katharina’s response to the request is not exactly positive, ‘If she shows up at my door I’ll come out shooting.’
This is typical of Donker. All of her choices are obstinate. Her autonomy and single-mindedness made and broke her political career, and they have stood in the way of her personal happiness. She cannot avoid thinking about her life story; her memory thrusts her back into important, often painful episodes. Her son from a relationship with a Spanish economist opted for his father’s family, which firmly rejected her. Hugo, the great love of her life, full of grand ideas, disappeared to Surinam after suffering psychological problems. The daughter she had by him inherited her father’s unstable mental health and rightly blames her mother for neglecting her. An East German lover used Katharina for political ends. The burden of her past eventually leads to a break with her present life.
Noordervliet plays an astonishing game with memory, past events, biography and the sacrifices a statesman has to make to achieve and hold onto a position of power. Her novel presents a wonderful picture of the politics of the 1960s, full of progressive and feminist ideals. All told, this is a touching portrait of the life of a strong- willed human being.