Affecting, affected

By David Herman, March 19, 2009

At the end of the Second World War, Jacob Noah emerges from the forest, where he has been hiding. He goes to his Dutch hometown, Assen. His parents and brother have been taken away by the Nazis and their shop has become an Aryan bookshop. There, surrounded by Dutch nationalist books and posters of Teutonic heroes, Noah confronts the shop-owner, his head full of thoughts of revenge.

So far, so straightforward. But readers of Marcel Möring’s earlier work, hugely successful in his native Netherlands, will know that whatever else happens over the next 450 pages of In a Dark Wood (Fourth Estate, £8.99), it will not be straightforward. Jacob’s father is called Abraham --- a signal that this a book about Jews and Jewish history that will address big issues: the Holocaust and memory, Israel’s right to existence, European antisemitism.

When Jacob forces his way into his father’s old shop the doorbell rings. “To say,” writes Möring, “that the shop doorbell echoes for several minutes… would be an understatement. It takes years, many years, decades.” We are then told the story of Jacob’s life. Hence the symbol --- which runs through the book — of a number of concentric circles, one of many tricksy graphic devices that Möring uses. As the doorbell’s ring sounds through Jacob’s life, so too does the memory of what happened to his family, like the ripples from a stone thrown into a lake.

In Holland, the book was published as Dis, the name of the city of the dead in the sixth circle of Dante’s Inferno. Möring is nothing if not highbrow. This is a very long and bookish book, full of references to Joyce and Odysseus, Goethe and The Decameron, and of authorial games — alongside serious issues and powerful images.

At its best, it deals affectingly with loneliness and memory, and the need to build a new life after terrible things have happened to oneself and one’s family. There are many touching moments.

At its worst, however, the book is indulgent and irritating, resembling one of those interminable European art movies which just go on and on, throwing in bits of the Holocaust, clever-clever references, sex, and a motorbike race on a long summer’s night. A pretentious exploitation of suffering.

    Last updated: 11:45am, March 31 2009