Voyage into murky depths
Het Hof Van Barmhartigheid (A.F.Th. van der Heijden)
This book is the third part of a four part series of books, although in terms of books, it is already the fifth out of seven. According to the listing in the front matter, part 5 and 6 are 'in preparation'. To students of Dutch literature, this may seem as much of a threat as it is a hint of what's to come.
For all the praise and credit heaped upon this author (well-earned as it is), this is not a book that aims to entertain in the modern (or even mediocre) sense. At times, I found it a challenge to hang on to the seemingly endless avalanche of imagery and philosophical excursions, all with absent regard for keeping a story line alive, let alone moving forward at more than glacial pace. In short, this is not a novel for the squeamish reader, both in form and content.
As far as the content goes: be warned that it is an exploration of the depths of the human psyche, taking a non-too well behaving specimen as its center of attention. This exploration takes the reader to low points of behaviour, then merrily keeps on digging well below that level. More than once, aided by the rest of the cast, the text surprised me with yet even worse aspects of what humans are able to think and do, not least to each other.
A very pleasant aspect of the book stucture is that it is chopped up in small pieces, covering wildly varying amounts of story time, but rarely using more than half a dozen pages. Every section is from another character's perspective and has a date noted, in anything but chronological order. Besides facilitating reading the book in short bursts (as I tend to do, using small bits of spare time) it creates an effect like the literary equivalent of a fractal: at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that you have seen the whole thing. Dig deeper (or zoom in, whichever image you prefer) and you find that there is ever more detail to be found. Best of all: you wind up finding repeating patterns inside of smaller detail.
For those who read literature as a self-imposed intellectual challenge, the book (and indeed the whole series it belongs in) is a worthy choice, best read as part of the set. The casual reader looking for entertainment in the commonly understood sense had better look elsewhere.