Sweeping family epic in which a grandson grapples with his grandfather’s troubling past
This ambitious new novel by Tommy Wieringa brings together a number of recurring themes in his work: the loner’s battle with his surroundings, and life in the shadow of absent parental figures. The protagonist, Hugo Adema, spends three years of his adolescence living on his grandparents’ estate, separate from his twin brother. He experiences this as an exile from his own family, with whom he’ll never feel at home again.
In 2016, Hugo is a renowned painter whose life has ground to a halt since Loïs, the love of his life, left him. He returns to his grandparents’ estate to investigate the past of his hundred-year-old grandfather Willem Adema. Willem is revered by the rest of the family, and the outside world considers him a visionary hydraulic engineer, though with a tainted past; during the Second World War he initially joined the SS before subsequently becoming a member of the Resistance. The family made excuses for the former while putting him on a pedestal for the latter. Hugo, for his part, has a complicated relationship with his grandfather. They are both gifted loners and unlucky in love, but more than anything they are opposites. Willem Adema represents Nazism and the fossil fuel industry, whereas his grandson increasingly chooses the path of art and meditation.
Hugo feels alienated from the times he lives in and from his right-wing family. His sense of isolation only grows when his beloved governess, Beth, passes away. Hugo unearths his grandfather’s long-lost diaries, which cast a shocking new light on his wartime years, and decides to use them in his latest art project. Around the same time, Loïs exhibits nude photos of him. His erstwhile muse has turned him into an object — it’s a betrayal Hugo has a hard time coping with. However, it doesn’t keep him from proceeding with his own art project, which exposes his grandfather as a war criminal. It will mark his comeback as an artist, but it will also cause an irreparable rift with his family.
Nirvana is a complex and compelling novel with themes that call to mind Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. The intimate story of an artist trying to figure out how he feels about a problematic ancestor is interwoven with reflections on the past century. With Nirvana, columnist, essayist and novelist Wieringa has written his magnum opus.