A sober approach to a dramatic subject
Joost Zwagerman’s reputation is based partly on the way he deals with moral dilemmas with which Dutch society is struggling. In De buitenvrouw (The Mistress, 1994), he highlights latent racism, which often degenerates into painful hypocrisy, due to the so-called tolerant national character of the Dutch. In the novel Zes sterren (Six Stars), Zwagerman tackles another delicate subject, suicide. A theme that, as the author explained on television, has an autobiographical background. His father once made an abortive attempt at suicide and later thanked his lucky stars that he had managed to emerge from the depression that had caused his action.
Being a writer who creates from his own imagination, for Zwagerman this fact constituted no more than the motivation to delve into the subject. Zes sterren is about the shock experienced by the first person narrator, Justus Merkelbach, when his Uncle Siem commits suicide, disappearing from his life forever. It is even more of a shock because Justus was closer to his uncle than his own father. This is the uncle who offers him a job after graduation, at Good Morning, a commercial magazine for the hotel sector, and with whom he drives all over the country in a smart car, reviewing hotel facilities and persuading the owners to place advertisements, using blackmail where necessary. So why does it have to be Siem, an uncle who likes Madame Bovary, but, unlike Emma, prefers the provincial life and is cursed with the blues of lonely roads – why does it have to be this congenial man who takes his life?‘He was rich, lonely and happy,’ Justus notes. ‘Then he started cheating on his wife. He left his girlfriend; his wife left him. And his life ended disastrously.’ Justus is left distraught, not knowing how to cope with his emotions, which vary from grief to fury, powerlessness, regret and incomprehension – and the thought crosses his mind that, now his existence has become pointless without Uncle Siem, he might as well end it all, too. These are, naturally, the intense emotions with which Justus is wrestling. The danger of becoming pathetic is therefore very real. But on that score, Zwagerman certainly deserves a compliment for not yielding to temptation. He does not drown his main character in a sea of tears, or a pool of self-pity, but lets him give a rather matter-of-fact account of events. Such a sober approach certainly does far more justice to a dramatic subject such as suicide.