The Plague

Het stille knagen van schrijvers, termieten en Zuid-Afrika

Scientific and journalistic odyssey

While working on his thesis on prehistoric architecture, David van Reybrouck comes across the accusation that the Belgian writer and Nobel Prize winner Maurice Maeterlinck had plagiarised from the work of the South African author, journalist and physicist Eugène Marais, in his book La vie des termites (1926). He decides to investigate the case himself.

Why did Maeterlinck write about insects? Are their indications that he was familiar with Marais’ work? His quest leads him from Maeterlinck’s archive in Belgium, via a collector of Maeterlinck paraphernalia, libraries, the Internet and mountains of reading matter to South Africa itself, where he picks up Marais’ trail. In an inhospitable area to the north of Pretoria, where Marais, meanwhile addicted to drugs and suffering from depression, had retired in 1906 to observe and write about baboons and where he finally committed suicide, the hunter finds himself treading on the tail of the hunted. He stumbles on a collection of old medicine bottles that make Marais’ tragic life highly tangible.

In this animated account of his scientific and journalistic odyssey, David van Reybrouck immerses himself in the lives of Maeterlinck and Marais and ploughs through documentation on ants and termites. He skilfully interweaves his findings with socio-economic and political information, with details of artistic fashions and the spirit of the time in which the two authors lived, finally placing it all in the context of cultural history and scientific developments. His most sobering confrontation is with the new South Africa; a land forced to rediscover itself after the ANC’s assumption of power in 1994 and still faced with seemingly insoluble problems and contradictions. His courage sometimes fails him when the futility of his enterprise in this light becomes apparent and, like Marais, he is occasionally overwhelmed by a sense of transience and despair.

De plaag steers a course between a literary study, a historical scientific essay, an adventure story and an unusual travel report, written in an exceptionally enthralling style. David van Reybrouck surprises his reader with unexpected links and parallels between his various subjects, such as the organisation of the termite hill and the construction of a human society. The termite hill has long been a useful literary metaphor, he remarks. For the human body, for example. Along the way, the reader sees the book itself grow into an anthropological metaphor for life itself, in which the majority of the individual elements prove to be interrelated. De plaag sweeps the reader along in a thrilling postmodernist literary adventure, which leaves its image on the retina of the mind’s eye long after the last page has been turned.

De plaag is a book you can read for various reasons: to find out the real circumstances of plagiarism or to read how Maeterlinck’s alleged injustice leads Van Reybrouck to post-apartheid South Africa, where he is assailed by a far more real and harrowing injustice. (…) With this book it seems Van Reybrouck, who had solely scientific publications to his name before De plaag, has written himself out of the cocoon of scientific discourse.

De Standaard



De plaag. Het stille knagen van schrijvers, termieten en Zuid-Afrika (2001). Fiction, 302 pages.
Copies sold: 2,800

Themes: debut


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