Translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett
A book named after the patron saint of lost causes (even though my mother always believed that to be Saint Jude) could signpost hope. After all the saint could step in and help the lost cause … but then again maybe not.
Paul Krüzen’s life hasn’t been joyful. Abandoned by his mother at the age of 8 (she ran away with a Russian pilot, who crashed his plane nearby), he stayed with his father in the old farmhouse in Marienvëen, a village close to the German border, which anyone who wanted a life left as soon as they could. Paul’s friend, Hedwig Geerdink, wasn’t one of them. So they grow up together, Paul making a living from GDR memorabilia, Hedwig from an old- fashioned grocery shop. The highlights of their life are regular visits to the brothel and an annual holiday to the Philippines to have their needs satisfied.
At the time of telling, Paul Krüzen is 50, and now caring for his elderly father. Life goes on as it always has, and Paul is questioning the point of it all. He tells of his parents’ mismatched marriage, his father’s kind-heartedness that allowed the Russian to stay with them while he healed, and the tragic consequences of that. Paul never really recovers, but he fantasises of finding a mate and settling down to domesticated comforts. The nearest he comes to that is with the other blessed Rita, his favourite prostitute, although naturally his nights with her are spent only at the brothel.
The facts of Paul and Hedwig’s lives have always been small, and Paul is clear-headed enough to accept that his is getting smaller; that there’s an inevitability to the destination. But the route isn’t determined, and just when he thinks he knows how it’s all going to play out, events explode. If he thought losing his mother was the biggest tragedy, he’s about to find out that that was purely foreshadowing in literary terms.
The publisher describes the novel as darkly comic. If true, then I didn’t find the right wavelength. I laughed only once. (Could it be the humour is bloke-ish?) I felt sorry for the characters, the smallness and seediness of their existence. At times, my heart positively bled for them, particularly for Paul, when, after all that sacrifice, his father is happier in hospital. It’s no wonder that … no, that would be telling. I will say that the slightly surreal ending is open to more than one interpretation … just like the title. Clever man, that Wieringa.