The Chameleon

Claes plays a literary game of the first order

In his fourth novel, De Kameleon (The Chameleon) Paul Claes leads the reader through a lively yarn set on the eve of the Age of Reason. For a joke, Charles Déon, a young gentleman but with feminine traits, goes to a masked ball dressed as a young lady and catches the eye of the hostess. Later that evening, her husband, the marquis, takes him aside. A game of shape shifting and gender swapping ensues with entirely unforeseen consequences.

Charles joins the secret spy ring of Louis XV and is sent to Russia to lobby for the future of Poland. Success after success quickly assures his career in the army and he is promoted from spy and emissary to Royal Ambassador. In 1762, he is sent to England to conduct peace negotiations. When he is passed over as a diplomat after treacherous intervention by the King, however, his luck changes. Ironically enough, he is only able to escape his doom by passing himself off once again as a woman, this time for good.

Paul Claes presents this tale as an older Charles looks back on his life. At the same time, the story has several layers. What started out as a prank and ends up in daring disguise at a high diplomatic level is also Charles’ search for the real differences between male and female identity, and for insight into the playful urge towards renewed merging into, in the words of Plato, man as ‘a double whole, a homogamous being’. This equally implies a confrontation with himself, symbolised in mirror effects and telling contrasts. Entirely in the spirit of the time, he therefore touches on the philosophy of Rousseau and Voltaire, for example, the choice between nature and nurture. The French Revolution in 1789 puts all his values and certainties, including those concerning his background, at risk.

Once again, Paul Claes has accomplished the astonishing task of capturing the spirit of a major era in a book. He has woven a surprising and thrillingly adventurous life story from the customs, habits and political developments of the eighteenth century and fashioned it in the literary style, using – with its complex liaisons and intrigues – subject matter typical of the Renaissance in the run up to the Age of Reason. De Kameleon, with its numerous connotations and references, which are not at first sight obvious, is nevertheless clearly written as a sometimes light-hearted, sometimes serious, but unmistakably contemporary novel.

This is a literary game of the first order, being so brilliantly played that it made my head spin. Delightful.



De Kameleon (2001). Fiction, 240 pages.
Copies sold: 4,000


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