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'The Angel Maker: A Novel' by Stefan Brijs

A rising star of Belgian literature goes gothic in a novel of science pushed too far.

February 04, 2009|Tim Rutten

If you're one of those who has been mesmerized by the problematic complexities of the still-unfolding Whittier octuplets saga, then "The Angel Maker" might be just the novel for you.

Stefan Brijs, a 39-year-old former secondary schoolteacher, is Belgian literature's rising star. "The Angel Maker," his fourth novel, was a bestseller there and sold an astonishing 80,000 copies in neighboring Holland. (Contemporary Dutch and the Flemish in which Brijs writes are barely divided dialects of the same tongue.) This book, which flavors the author's previous forays into magic realism with a strong dose of the Gothic, explores a world of science gone amok in a society whose religion -- in this case, the conservative traditional Catholicism of small-town Flanders -- offers no consolation.

Victor Hoppe returns after an absence of decades to his home village of Wolfheim and brings with him triplet sons, whom he is at pains to shield from local scrutiny. The boys are so identical -- right down to the cleft palate that also disfigured their father as a boy -- that even he needs colored bracelets to tell them apart. They are called by the names of three archangels (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael), an intimation of their father's godlike role in their conception. They also are far from normal, possessed of huge heads (from which the hair quickly falls) and the faces of old men.

As Victor gradually takes up the role of village physician that his own father once occupied, we learn in narrative flashback that he had not been away practicing medicine but was working as a cutting-edge researcher at a German university, where he conducted unauthorized human cloning experiments of which his "sons" are a product. Along the way, Brijs skillfully sets out Victor's own tragic history. He has Asperger's syndrome, a condition usually regarded as a high-functioning form of autism. He lacks empathy, is socially awkward because he cannot read others' nonverbal communication, is obsessively attentive and has a tone-deaf pedantry when dealing with others. The Viennese pediatrician who first identified the condition called his patients "little professors." As a child, Victor was sent by his own hideously unfeeling father first to a home for the "feeble-minded" run by the Poor Clare nuns and, later, to a Christian Brothers boarding school. From that experience, he has internalized a photographic recollection of Scripture and liturgical practices -- particularly those surrounding the Passion -- and a belief that God the creator is cruel and unfeeling.

Without spoiling the narrative's engrossing drive to tragic conclusion, suffice to say that unorthodox science and unorthodox faith conjoin in an echo of both the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

Dutch treat

Enthusiastic Belgian critics call "The Angel Maker" a "page turner," and it remains so in English. However, one suspects that certain settings and devices in the plot are meant to be allusive in ways mainly accessible to Dutch-speaking readers, as in the repeated -- and highly significant -- appearance of the Vaalserberg, the highest point in the Netherlands and the place where that country, Belgium and Germany meet. In fact, Wolfheim, the small ancestral village to which Victor returns with his tragic offspring (one is tempted to write "unholy," but not even the most misbegotten child can be that), is in the tiny, deeply traditional, German-speaking corner of Belgium that is in the Vaalserberg's shadow in several senses. There are obvious associations with Calvary in this narrative, but one suspects the author's intentions are more layered. Flemish writers, even in this modern incarnation, tend to be deeply conscious of their cultural past, and one of Brijs' previous books is a collection of essays built around pilgrimages to the graves of dead Flemish writers.

It is that obvious historical consciousness that raises a somewhat troubling question about the religious attitude with which Brijs has imbued his main character. It's one of the narrative's most thought-provoking conceits: Victor hates God, whom he equates with judgment and retribution, but loves Jesus, whom he identifies with compassion and goodness. He instructs his sons' nanny that she is to teach about the second person of the Trinity but never the first. In the context of "The Angel Maker," it's easy enough to see how Victor conflates God with his own unfeeling and removed father, a physician of arctic frigidity, and identifies himself with the suffering, self-sacrificing son.

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