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the complete review - fiction
A.F.Th. van der Heijden
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||A.F.Th. van der Heijden
||Das Scherbengericht - Deutschland
- Een transatlantische tragedie
- Dutch title: Het schervengericht
- Het schervengericht has not yet been ranslated into English
- AKO Literatuurprijs, 2007
- Part of the Homo duplex-cycle of novels
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B : epic qualities, but doesn't completely nail it
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "A.F. Th. van der Heijden is ontketend, en hoe ! Als een Prometheus die zich van de rots heeft losgescheurd schreef hij, groots en meeslepend, het nieuwe omvangrijke deel van zijn romancyclus Homo duplex. Aan het einde van deze magistrale inspanning wordt duidelijk van welke beklemming Van der Heijden zich heeft bevrijd." - Elsbeth Etty, NRC Handelsblad
- "Mit Wischmopps in der Hand umtanzen sie sich, liefern sich ein fantastisches Dialogduell um Schuld und Sühne. Sie beichten sich, sie schlagen sich, sie entdecken sich als zwei Seiten derselben Medaille, als Verfolgte eines Volks der Spießer und Heuchler. A. F.Th.van der Heijdens Fantasie über Zeit und Mythos hat geradezu unheimliche Längen und genauso unheimliche Höhepunkte (.....) Alle mythischen Möglichkeiten, die ihm dieses künstliche Gipfeltreffen der Siebziger bietet, nutzt van der Heijden geradezu genüsslich aus und verknotet sämtliches Wissen um Manson und Polanski virtuos neu." - Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
[Note: this review is based on the German translation of the novel by Helga van Beuningen, published as Das Scherbengericht.]
Starting in late 1977, Roman Polanski spent 42 days at 'Chino', the California Institution for Men prison facility, for psychiatric evaluation as part of his plea agreement for unlawful sexual intercourse with a (thirteen-year-old) minor.
In his 'transatlantic tragedy' Het schervengericht, A.F.Th. van der Heijden presents a fictional account of Polanski's stay there, the facility rechristened 'Choreo' -- appropriately, given the dance van der Heijden stages with his characters.
Never identified by his actual name -- the prisoner uses the pseudonym 'Remo Woodehouse' while at the facility, to avoid being recognized as a celebrity (and outed as a child-molester), and all who are in the know are careful to avoid any mention of his real name -- the protagonist is nevertheless more than just closely modeled on Polanski, and the details leave no doubt from early in the novel, right down to the dates of his 11 March 1977 arrest, and his arrival at the institution on 19 December.
The great fictional leap van der Heijden takes is in having Polanski's stay there coincide with that of another prisoner, of similarly diminutive physical stature.
At first also only identified by pseudonym -- 'Scott Maddox', in his case -- this man, his face wrapped in bandages from severe burns he recently sustained, is just as readily identifiable as Polanski (though neither Woodehouse and Maddox realize immediately who they are each dealing with): it is Charles Manson.
Though a stretch, van der Heijden's daring premise is inspired.
The Homo duplex-series that this volume is a part of is grounded in Greek mythology, and this pairing is a tragic one that the masters of antiquity would have applauded, as Manson's most famous crime was the 1969 'Helter Skelter'-slaughter.
Among the victims was Sharon Tate -- the wife of none other than Roman Polanski --, as well as their unborn but near-term child, the scene of the crime Polanski's own home; by coincidence, he was away at the time.
The novel is presented in seven parts, covering the six weeks of Woodehouse's incarceration and then first week after his release (when he fled the United States and further punishment), each chapter covering one day, from 19 December 1977 to 1 February 1978, and further subdivided into often a dozen or two sub-chapters.
The account focuses on Woodehouse, and while it proceeds generally chronologically, leaps constantly back to earlier events -- describing how Woodehouse got in the mess he's is and wound up at Choreo for example, and his days, weeks, and months before he was brought there, information that is presented piecemeal even as the story continues to advance in real time, Woodehouse already beginning his prison stay.
Flashbacks take Woodehouse further back too, from brief childhood flashes -- the Kraków Ghetto, the last time he had been confined against his will -- to longer, fonder memories of wife Sharon (only the 'Tate' is left unspoken).
These scenes, and many of the prison ones with Woodehouse, are presented by an omniscient narrator, but there is also a first person-narrator who chronicles part of the story, Spiros Agraphiotis, a Greek with a Dutch background.
When the novel -- and Woodehouse's incarceration -- begins, Agraphiotis has just hired on at Choreo as a guard in the high-security wing (where both Woodehouse and Maddox are housed), on a trial basis.
Still living in a motel, with no dependents, he's an eager worker, willing to cover extra shifts and hard to convince to even take a day off.
He also shows great interest in the two prisoners, keeping an eye -- and ears -- on them as they sweep the halls, the keep-busy job they both willingly shoulder.
There's something fishy about this 'Greek' Maddox tells Woodehouse early on; 'he knows too much' -- meaning not only that he is too well-educated for the position he's filling.
It turns out that Agraphiotis is another figure straight out of Greek tragedy -- more directly even than Woodehouse and Maddox.
As is slowly revealed, it is Agraphiotis that is behind the staging of this confrontation, and his own presence there is no coincidence, but rather the result of careful planning (though it took a bit of luck for it all to work out this way, too).
In fact, he's had his fingers in leading Woodehouse and Maddox to their respective fates all along.
Not quite infallibly god-like in his powers, he nevertheless has more knowledge and talents at his disposal than your average mortal.
Not that that's necessarily quite enough: he admits his previous efforts, which he set in motion beginning in 1967, had gone fundamentally (and catastrophically) wrong, but he's having another go at getting his way.
Eventually, a casual aside makes unequivocally clear who is masked behind the oracular figure, Agraphiotis mentioning that he overlooked the fine print when he signed a hundred-year exclusive with NASA, prohibiting him from using or even so much as mentioning his name (even in acrostic form), implying of course that he is none other than Apollo himself.
In the background, mostly off-stage (and peripheral), there's a chorus, outside the prison: Maddox's followers -- the infamous 'Family' here 'The Circle'.
They chant -- their words, however, unclear over the distance -- and stay camped out there, a largely shadowy presence (but offering the occasional sense of menace more directly, too).
Inside, Woodehouse and Maddox begin their coy dance as they do their daily sweeping and cleaning duties, feeling each other out in conversation -- Agraphiotis listening in on the sly when he can.
Each drops hints about his own identity, but it takes a while until they recognize each other with any certainty; part of the fun here is the way they dance around the facts, Maddox whistling a Beatles tune he claims not to remember the name of or words to, but which is obviously 'Helter Skelter', Woodehouse wearing the fancy glasses found at the Manson-murders scene but whose owner was never identified (Charlie had left them behind ...).
Sporting a disguising beard, and wearing Manson's glasses, the film-director looks much more like Manson than the near-mummified Maddox -- so bandaged up, it's not even clear what race he is.
Indeed, upon his release, Woodehouse is mistaken for Charlie by The Circle-groupies.
Maddox's slips, or clues -- all the way to referring to himself as 'Charlie' -- accumulate, and eventually Woodehouse is certain who he's dealing with.
His first reaction is to attack the killer of his wife and child in cold fury, but after a few days in solitary he decides what he wants are answers, and he rejoins his partner back on the dance-floor, and they warily continue their give and take, Maddox giving his side of his story, Woodehouse challenging him.
Eventually, both the horrific murders as well as Woodehouse's recent misstep with the young girl are replayed and recounted in close detail.
'We are sentenced to each other', Maddox sums it up to Woodehouse, a purgatory (at the edge of hell) in which they relive their sins and suffering.
Absent when the murders took place, Woodehouse is now confronted with them up close and deeply personally -- offering some closure, but penance, also, for his own, more recent transgression.
Much is revealed and presented in the neutral description of the omniscient narrator, but this is also Greek tragedy, a novel of and in dialogue for long, long stretches, Maddox and Woodehouse pitted against each other.
Van der Heijden gives voice cautiously to the Manson-stand-in -- an evasive, occasionally skittish, occasionally cryptic attitude that suits the character and awful baggage he brings with him.
The Polanski-stand-in is revealed more fully -- also in character, with Woodehouse even willing to tell his story to the police (even when he knows his lawyer would advise him not to say a word), more interested in a fuller understanding, while Maddox is guided only by a demented personal philosophy, twisting and using facts (and how and what he reveals) only to his own perverse ends.
Their conversations do feel artificial -- and they are: deliberately staged, and written almost like scenes from a play.
Such a reminder that this is fiction might not be necessary, but there are points when van der Heijden seems to want to make sure it's clear.
Yet surprisingly -- and even more so, given the presence of the Apollo-cum-Agraphiotis figure -- van der Heijden doesn't go near as far with it as one might expect an author to.
The larger picture is only very occasionally glimpsed or mentioned, as in a short chapter when Agraphiotis muses on man and fate, and the two men he has brought together, suggesting: 'Man is merely a fly, caught between mirrors of the past and the future'.
Het schervengericht plays with names, from personal ones to movie titles (and, it must be said, often quite awkwardly), a reminder perhaps not to trust the facts as he presents them entirely, but the accounts both of most of Manson's life and the murders, as well as Polanski's life up to that point are almost identical with the public record.
'Helter Skelter' here becomes 'Hurly Burly' here, Manson prosecutor (and Helter Skelter (here: Hurly Burly ...) author) Vincent Bugliosi is 'Vincent Jacuzzi', and so on, but the differences are almost entirely superficial: van der Heijden follows the facts, where known, closely.
He restages the crimes and the fall-out in painstaking detail, and while he obviously takes considerable liberties with the behind-bars scenes, including Manson's experiences over the years, and while the Woodehouse-Maddox encounters are entirely invention, the novel is grounded deeply and convincingly in the two notorious criminal cases.
Only in its resolution does Het schervengericht differ from the official record, the (more or less) big reveal, as it were, being that Manson was present at the Tate murder scene.
With his presence no longer needed, van der Heijden slips Maddox from Woodehouse's orbit -- with a nice bit of spectacle, but still somewhat anticlimactically.
The final week, chronicling Woodehouse's release and flight form the American authorities, first to London and then to Paris, is a coda of sorts.
Agraphiotis leaves his position at the same time; indeed, they wind up side by side on the transatlantic flight, and Agraphiotis helps Woodehouse make good his final escape (though he's unable to convince him to join him in Amsterdam).
Agraphiotis has his own issues to deal with too -- finally also able to see the young club-footed toddler who represents more or less his only family, a child, still, but obviously Oedipal ....
Once in safety, a defiant Woodehouse announces his upcoming plans -- the Natassia Kinski-like figure, another too-young girl, at his side as he vows to now work on the Tess-like film, sure he can find French sites that will stand in convincingly enough for the English countryside .....
In conclusion, Woodehouse is a figure who has been banished -- from Hollywood, the Rome of his craft (film-making), and from the United States.
That this is the summing up doesn't come as a surprise, both because Polanski's fate is familiar to readers and because of the title of the novel, derived from the Greek ὀστρακισμός -- the schervengericht ('judgment of shards') by which citizens were ostracized in classical times (the ballots broken shards).
Van der Heijden makes his novel an epic chronicle of modern ostracism, Polanski its tragic hero.
In a sense, the material seems almost too rich -- Polanski's life almost beyond Greek tragedy (as noted just incidentally, for example, Polanski and Tate dined with Robert Kennedy the night he was assassinated ...).
Van der Heijden's large-scale but intimate treatment seeks to grasp it, but his hold is slippery and not always successful.
The novel is part of a larger cycle, and likely must be situated within that (as yet unfinished) series, but by itself it can not quite live up to the weight of its material.
Het schervengericht is a massive work -- a thousand-pager -- and van der Heijden weaves his narrative with remarkable control: for a novel that switches back and forth between numerous time periods and events so frequently and abruptly, as well as given the shifting perspectives, it is remarkably easy to follow.
It is a novel of recapitulation, in turning and looking back time and again, in reliving these events from the near and more distant past -- effectively presented only piece by small piece until they are strung together in the larger picture.
But the presentation also seems to hold the promise of a greater payoff than van der Heijden can deliver, the conclusion more wan fade-out than thunderously reverberating Olympian resolution.
Often fascinating, and surprisingly sustained for such a long novel, Het schervengericht doesn't quite pack the punch it seems to promise.
- M.A.Orthofer, 23 December 2014
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A. F. Th. van der Heijden:
Other books by A.F.Th. van der Heijden under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Dutch author Adrianus Franciscus Theodorus van der Heijden was born in 1951.
He is the author of numerous highly acclaimed novels, including the multi-volume saga, De tandeloze tijd.
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