Memoirs of a Leopard
Peter Verhelst’s work often incorporates elements from Classical antiquity or mythology, for him stories with a solemn, sometimes even sacred tone and a compelling pattern that can be constantly retold in new versions and variations. His latest book, the novella Memoirs of a Leopard, refers to the Orpheus myth.
As a young man the narrator studies at art school for a while. His mysterious neighbour, who draws and sculpts, takes him there in her car. He becomes fascinated by her and by the ‘tropical sorrow’ that he suspects in her, the longing for the unattainable that she expresses in her works of art, a pining homesickness, an insatiable yearning. But his parents do not want him to associate with her, because they are afraid she will throw him off balance, while he only wants to capture other people’s reality in drawing, and they are glad when one fine day they find she has moved. The young man makes his way to the city, finds a job in a museum and discovers his love by accident in an estate agent’s office. Then follows the account of his attempts to really see her, become completely absorbed in her, and in his attempts he oscillates between exuberance and asceticism - which in his view are related. As a painter the narrator wants to paint the ultimate portrait of his beloved in the most appropriate and striking way. In words he composes unnecessary scenes or makes fleeting sketches, wanting to ‘write from life’. He becomes so permeated by the beloved, so seized by the urge to grasp her in his form, so bewildered by fascination and jealousy, that their love can only end in tragedy. But many questions are left open. Often the narrator and his beloved see each other as a mirror in which the mirror images are trying to merge. Is the beloved then perhaps a projection of the narrator’s? Where is the boundary between reality and imagination, between reality and memory in the depiction? Peter Verhelst writes this story of an inspired passion in highly poetic but also glowing, compelling and incisive prose, with yet again a strongly physical wealth of images, a super-sensitive and sensual explicitness. Although fairly modest in size, this novella is a synthesis of the novels he has written so far, a perfect introduction to his more substantial and complex work.