The dark side of a father-son relationship
Those who met Ferdinand Bordewijk described him as an impeccable, nondescript lawyer. Even the few acquaintances whom he deigned to meet privately found it almost impossible to extract personal statements from him, and when interviewed about his literary work he spoke of its writer in the third person, as if talking of someone else altogether. Bordewijk’s writing must have fulfilled a compensatory function in his life. With his solid, violent style, Bordewijk indulged urges which had no place in his daily routine. As a lawyer he was all too aware of the consequences of giving in to temptation.
Karakter (‘Character’) is F. Bordewijk’s most famous novel. It tells the story of Katadreuffe, a clerk who is struggling to work his way up in society. He opens a small tobacconist’s shop, only to be made bankrupt by the formidable Rotterdam bailiff Dreverhaven - his own father. Every time success is within reach, his father blocks him. When Katadreuffe finally achieves his great ambition of becoming a lawyer, he refuses to shake his father’s hand: crying that he won’t accept congratulations from a father who has ‘worked against him’ his whole life. Slowly, clearly, hoarsely yet gently, Dreverhaven says: ‘Or worked for you.’ A masterly story of the dark side of the father-son relationship and, at the same time, a portrait of pre-war Rotterdam where the drama is set.
The expeditions in which Dreverhaven lives up to his frightening reputation, evicting the poor from their hovels, have a gruesome magnificence, with Bordewijk showing the bestial side of his human characters and giving houses and lanes anthropomorphic characteristics. Horror lurks everywhere and Bordewijk’s language - except in its lighter moments - is as merciless as the unforgettably villainous bailiff.
The film based on Character won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of the year in 1998.