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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Het theater, de brief en
de waarheid

Harry Mulisch

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Title: Het theater, de brief en de waarheid
Author: Harry Mulisch
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 85 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Das Theater, der Brief und die Wahrheit - Deutschland
  • Een tegenspraak
  • Het theater, de brief en de waarheid has not been translated into English
  • Published as the boekenweekgeschenk 2000

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Our Assessment:

B+ : cleverly and nicely done -- though he takes it a bit too easy on occasion

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A+ 26/9/2000 Alexander Honold
Die Welt . 14/10/2000 Alexander von Bormann

  From the Reviews:
  • "Das Theater, der Brief und die Wahrheit handelt von einer Tragödie und steckt doch voller Erzählwitz. () Mulischs Aufarbeitung des Falles ist eigenständig und nimmt sich alle Freiheiten. In ihrem spielerischen Konstruktivismus ist seine Erzählung zugleich ein eminent politisches Werk, gerade weil sie die Fallen der Eindeutigkeit umgeht. () Das Theater, der Brief und die Wahrheit ist ein Zwitter von seltener Art: ein Glanzstück essayistischer Gelegenheitsprosa und zugleich ein klassisches Meisterwerk." - Alexander Honold, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Mulisch wäre nicht Mulisch, wenn er nicht die an sich schon verrückte Geschichte noch ein wenig weiter drehte. () Mulisch benutzt, meisterlich wie nur W. F. Hermans, das alttragische Grundmotiv: Das Unheil kommt auf dem Wege, auf dem man ihm zu entgehen trachtet." - Alexander von Bormann, 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:

       Het theater, de brief en de waarheid ("The Theatre, the letter, and the truth") is a short novella based on actual events. In 1987 there were plans to produce Rainer Werner Fassbinder's controversial play, Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod (Garbage, the City and Death) in the Netherlands. The play was perceived as being anti-Semitic, and there were protests surrounding the production -- a major theatre scandal of the day. An actor, Jules Croiset, who protested against the staging of the play, and his family received a threatening letter and then Croiset was apparently kidnapped, only to be found the next day. As it turned out, Croiset wrote the letter himself, and also staged his own kidnapping -- which caused yet another scandal.
       In Mulisch's novel the Croiset-character is Herbert Althans, and the events closely mirror the actual ones. The book is divided into two main parts; there is also a brief intermezzo. The first part ("Herbert") is narrated by a Mulisch-like author, Felix, who looks back on events in 1987 (from 1999). The setting is a funeral: of Herbert's wife, Magda. The focus is almost entirely on Herbert's funeral oration. He mourns his wife -- and comes to speak of what he did, offering here an explanation for why he faked his own kidnapping. He also has a different story to tell from the one he had spread previously regarding the threatening letter: claiming now, after his wife's death, that it was, in fact, real (explaining then also how (and why) he had convinced the police that he had written the letter).
       All of this is quite cleverly done, Mulisch musing on what might motivate a man to do such things, and on the power of theatre -- as demonstrated both by the reactions to the possible performance of Fassbinder's play and Herbert's own very staged deed.
       Felix was present at the funeral, and he also relies on a videotape made of it in writing his account, the bulk of which is basically a transcription of Herbert's dramatic monologue. Sitting next to him at the funeral was Vera, and she is also a small presence in his narrative.
       The entr'acte consists -- theatrically -- entirely of a dialogue between Felix and Vera, discussing the odd kidnapping episode (and considering how one might dramatize the material ...).
       Then comes a clever, unexpected turn. Mulisch calls his little book een tegenspraak -- a contradiction -- and that is exactly what he serves up. The second part ("Magda") posits a similar scene -- Felix and Vera at a funeral -- but this time it is Vera who describes the proceedings, and the proceedings themselves are also different. In this alternate version it is Herbert who is dead and his widow, Magda, giving the funeral oration -- and offering a quite different perspective on what happened.
       It is an either-or novel: the two stories contradict one another -- at least regarding who is alive and who is dead. Tantalizingly, however, the two explanations Herbert and Magda give could neatly mesh. But there is no certainty here: truth remains elusive, none of the voices sound anywhere near truly reliable. (Amusingly, the book is also a neither-nor novel, because the actual Croisets are, in fact, still alive -- Mulisch, in fact, consulted them in writing his fiction.)
       Het theater, de brief en de waarheid is also very much a theatre-novel, exploring the power and possibilities of theatre, and though it is presented as a novel it reads much like a play. (Not surprisingly, it has already also been turned into a play.)

       Het theater, de brief en de waarheid is a small read, but clever and entertaining -- a fascinating episode interestingly presented and (twice-over) explained. Only occasionally do a few lazy touches crop up, where Mulisch is too lackadaisical or too easily satisfied with some cliché or empty phrase or thought. But overall: a strong effort.

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Het theater, de brief en de waarheid:
  • Hanser publicity page (German)
Reviews: Das Theater, der Brief und die Wahrheit - the play:
  • Review in NRC Handelsblad (Dutch)
Fassbinder's Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod: Harry Mulisch: Other books by Harry Mulisch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Harry Mulisch was born in 1927. One of the foremost post-war European authors he has written numerous international bestsellers. Ridiculously few of his works are available in English.

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