A paternal side

A paternal side

Jefferson delves into a gripping Dutch novel.

Whisky & Culture | 24 Jul 2009 | Issue 81 | By Jefferson Chase

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Whisky is getting more and more popular in countries where English isn't the native language, so it's not surprising that it pops up with increasing frequency, too, in world literature.

Karel van Loon's 2002 novel A Father's Affair is one such work, and thankfully it's accessible for those of us who don't do Dutch in a readable translation.

Holland has always struck me as a society with a crazy subconscious carefully concealed behind a deceptive screen of extremely humdrum respectability. And this novel begins with a cracking example of precisely that.

The hero Armin, an editor of academic textbooks, goes to the doctor after his partner has trouble getting pregnant. There he's told he's impotent, congenitally impotent.

The first thing I feel...is relief. Files have been switched, test results keyed in wrongly, someone with the same name, sitting in another doctor's office is being told at this very moment: "There's absolutely nothing wrong with you, sir...

"But that's impossible," I say. "I have a thirteen-year-old son."

There are beginnings of novels that grab you. This one grabs you by the short and.. well, you get the idea.

What follows has been described well as "whodunit of the human heart." Armin's ex-wife Monika, the mother of son Bo, is dead, and our hero has to figure out who the real father is, and if he really wants to know.

His main methods of sleuthing are interrogating old friends, snooping on potential suspects and drinking copiously.

Last night I went out drinking with Dees, for the first time in seven months. After the second glass of whisky, I told him what had happened. "My God," Dees said. "Waiter, could we have two more? Better make that doubles."

The more Armin starts delving into a painful past he thought he's put behind him, the greater the feeling that he's repressed something that should have been right before his eyes.

During the eight weeks after Monika's death, I edited two hefty textbooks... When I take those books off the shelf now, it's as if I've never read them. Entire chapters deal with concepts I've never heard of. During those first eight weeks, the drunken filing clerk of my memory must have been lying in a coma.

But like all drunks, our hero's memory eventually wakes up - unfortunately for him, it comes during a trip to a North Sea island with his son, intended to lay Monika's secret to rest.

Being about bereavement and betrayal, A Father's Affair is as poignant as it is gripping. And author Karel van Loon's sudden death in 2005 at the age of 42 makes it, in retrospect, all the more sad.

Life - like a fictional plot - can sometimes cruel, unexpected and unfair.
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