Translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett
What do you expect when you see a cute fluffy rabbit on the cover of a novel by Herman Koch? Such is the author’s reputation that I was expecting something of a bunny boiler. Well animal lovers will love this – the most dangerous moment for the cuddlesome creature comes when he escapes from his cage and chews through an HDMI cable.
However, when Aldermann Maarten tells the story to the mayor’s wife, she responds with much laughter and he touches her arm. This triggers all manner of insecurity and jealousy in her husband. It is the start of a slow and surprising unravelling, for Walters is the mayor of Amsterdam, ostensibly secure and confident. Yet, as his inner thoughts are revealed, we discover a man at odds with his public persona, and a husband still amazed that his beautiful, foreign wife chose him rather than his taller, blonder and more handsome friend, Bernhard.
The first half of the novel is preoccupied with Walters and his green-eyed monster, which he is determined to control. No outrageous outbursts of jealousy for him, but he watches his wife like a hawk. Her impeccable behaviour provides no fuel and yet he just cannot let his suspicions go. (She acting so innocent, she must be guilty of an affair with the aldermann.) In the second half the outside world intrudes. His aged but healthy parents determine that the time has come to end their time on earth – they want to do this before enduring an intolerable decline. And then there’s the scandal from the past that a journalist is threatening to break ….
With everything told from Walter’s POV, it’s hard to gauge the effect his behaviour has on others. Especially on his wife whose real name he refuses to give. Nor does he specify the foreign land whence she came. He could be affording her reasonable privacy. Then again this could be pathological jealousy. (She’s mine, and I’m not sharing her with you.) There’s the odd clue that the marriage isn’t as ideal as Walters would have us believe, particularly in the cultural divide, and especially around the Dutch need to control death.
“Why can’t you let life go the way it goes?” she demands of her acquiescent husband. “Why does everything have to be arranged, from cradle to grave? I don’t get it, I really don’t, you people have lost all touch with reality.”
Does this antipathy run deeper for a woman from a hot, southern country? Does Walter himself have misgivings about his wife’s culture? After all, the warning delivered by her older brother at their wedding must have reverberated through the years. Or is Walter’s jealousy a choice – something he conjures up to distract himself from other ills?
If so, his thinking is flawed. As is the novel itself. Walter’s narrative throws in many issues that would concern a mayor – garbage collection, the number of wind turbines on the outskirts of the city, meetings with Clinton, Mitterand. It is a mishmash, with the ending coming completely from left-field. It is triggered by a sudden decision on the part of Walter’s wife. Because Koch hasn’t given any insight into her thinking, we can only surmise why she acts in the way she does. That is more than a little unsatisfactory.
Ah well, at least the cuddly bunny doesn’t come to any harm.