A tangle of lies and deceit
‘I am always very suspicious of intellectuals’, Marja Brouwers once said in an interview and this attitude is amply demonstrated in her books. In Havinck it was a chilling portrait of a lawyer, in Light Chaser it is an art historian, an aggressive alcoholic who is hardly described in flattering terms. His name is Paul de Braak and he has worked for fifteen years at a provincial university outside Chicago. Now he returns to Amsterdam. He has two failed marriages behind him and does not seem to give his life a sense of purpose by, for example, attaching himself to some art movement or côterie. He is found dead in the Ardennes. Showing how he arrived at this sad end is the purpose of the book. And more.
Because Marja Brouwers has chosen to tell the story from various perspectives and using various styles. So the reader is left not only with a subtle portrait of Paul de Braak but also of his (Dutch) first wife Lea and his (American) second one, Michal. These make it clear that any judgement as to Braak’s behaviour which would soon lead to censure is not such a simple matter. To put this more forcibly, it is precisely these quick judgements on people which make genuine and meaningful contact so difficult. And if you happen to find yourself in intellectual circles, the risk of callousness and evasive rationalisations is twice as large.
The knowledge that intellectuals possess is in no way a guarantee of ‘rational’ behaviour, since knowledge gained is not used to gain self-knowledge. Brouwers wishes to give her theme a general validity, which can also be seen from the discursions, based on real cases, which are printed in italics in the ‘interlude’ sections which separate the stories. ‘Death of a Jewish American Princess’ is one such interlude, the story of the murder of a woman by her unemployed husband. In the courts, the defence tries to make the man out to be a docile, carpet-slipper, armchair hero and his wife a demanding spendthrift who is driving him mad. He is indeed acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity. The other interlude is an article by De Braak on the Weinreb affair, the Jewish economist who may have been a resistance hero during World War II but was perhaps a collaborator, but was not tried, just as in the case of his American wife. In this case too, the grey area between truth and falsehood is particularly unclear and the accused attempts to talk himself free by focusing attention on the greater evil of others.
That the man who has always chased the light can no longer be helped, but slides towards his downfall is the sombre conclusion of this vivid and grim book, in no way because the protagonist cuts a sympathetic figure but because it says a great deal about Brouwers’s lack of faith in the possibility of successful relationships between people, and between people and their philosophical ideals.