Book Review: Zeeland, or Elective
or Elective Concurrences
"Zeeland," the Britannica tells us, is a "maritime provincie,
southwestern Netherlands. It occupies the delta lands of the Scheldt
(Schelde) and Maas (Meuse) rivers….Its history has been marked
by a permanent struggle against the sea, indicated by its name,
meaning 'sea land,' and by its heraldic device, Luctor et emergo
('I struggle and emerge')." The motto is symbolically apt for this
new novel, an account of struggle and emergence from struggle, by
Dutch-born American writer Hans Koning. (The real Zeeland province
does play a part in Zeeland, but not until the end.)
NewSouth Books, $25
The story, on the face of it, is
simple: Two men, both named Beauchamp, are on the run across occupied
France, both heading for the safety of Spain. Sounds like the
plot of an old-fashioned war thriller, you might say, and you
would be right. But here's the trick, and the hinge on which Koning
hangs his coincidences (the "elective concurrences" of the title):
The first Beauchamp, a printer named Michel, is fleeing Bismarck's
Prussians and the forces of the re-established French government
in 1871, subsequent to the crushing of the Commune—that
Red Revolution avant la lettre in which Michel has taken
an active part. The second Beauchamp is Michel's American grandson
Michael, a dashing volunteer serviceman in the RAF, on the run
from Hitler's Nazis and their Vichy quislings in 1941.
Each Beauchamp is searching for
freedom. Each is also, in a sense, searching for redemption: Michel
in pursuit of his missing wife, who, believing him to be dead,
leaves Paris shortly after the Commune (and whose subsequent emigration
to America sets in motion the events that make their grandson
an American); and Michael in 1941, in taking on not only the Nazis
but also Marie de Jongh, a Dutch-Jewish resistance fighter who
is at first more of a burden than a blessing. In Marie, Michael
finds love, too, and emerges from his struggles—with the
Germans, with fate, with his own conscience—as a man of
true principle, redeemed by his adherence to love and duty. Michael's
gain thus counterbalances Michel's loss.
Yet there's another parallel in
Zeeland beyond the two Beauchamp stories: that between
the idealistic Beauchamps and Hans Koning himself. Koning, né
Koningsberger, escaped the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands
in 1940 by fleeing to Britain where, like Michael Beauchamp, he
took the King's Shilling as a volunteer member of the British
Army. In 1951, after a stint in Indonesia, he emigrated to the
United States and embarked on a globe-trotting career as a novelist,
journalist, and author of what The New York Times has described
as "personal travel-writing in the grand tradition." An American
citizen by the 1960s, he took a vociferous public stand against
the Vietnam War and has never ceased to proclaim his beliefs,
which tend toward what might be called populist humanism. It's
an admirable story, but one surmises that Koning's dogged idealism
has ruffled more than a few feathers along the way. The man doesn't
compromise easily, perhaps not at all. When he expresses his view
of a writer's duty, for instance, there's a youthful intransigence
about his stand.
You don't inquire what
is selling those days. You don't worry about what editors or reviewers
may like or not like….You don't read chapters to friends
or to a long-suffering husband or wife in order to get an independent
judgment. Your own judgment is independent. You don't accept any
suggested change except where you made a factual or grammatical
mistake. My motto has been through all those years: Not a comma.
Given the all-or-nothing quality
of this position, it's easy to imagine its chilly reception in
the publishing world. This no doubt explains why, in spite of
Koning's considerable output (Zeeland is his fourteenth
novel) and his credentials as a writer and correspondent for such
publications as The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly,
Zeeland is being published by NewSouth Books, a small Alabama-based
press to whom all praise is due for having the audacity to transcend
regionalism and keep a fine author in print.
Koning, now seventy-seven, has
long seen life as a kind of mission whose goal is both to expose
oppression and dishonesty, and to set the record straight on the
details—about daily life in Europe during World War II,
for instance. As he remarked in a 1998 Atlantic Monthly
I finally decided that
there weren't that many people around anymore who genuinely knew
what it felt like to be under German occupation. The way Hollywood
was treating it was ridiculous, and even French movies weren't
doing it well. So I thought it would be worthwhile to show people
how it really had been.
Koning is alluding here to one
of his earlier novels, DeWitt's War, a story of German-occupied
Holland, but he might just as well be talking about the 1940s
sections of Zeeland. Both novels evoke the brutality of
occupation through mundane details: the ausweisen (identity
cards), the ersatz coffee, the coal-burning taxis, the conversations
about food and rationing, the constant low-grade apprehension,
the sudden charge of fear, and, in the case of France specifically,
the everyday drabness so alien to a nation renowned for its style.
Koning evokes an atmosphere reminiscent of Alan Furst's novels
of the same period, or Simenon's early Inspector Maigret series.
This is the shocked and humbled France of the Occupation years,
where the need for subterfuge and concealment runs very deep.
Here, for instance, Michael and Marie are trying to camouflage
themselves as natives:
Next to their café
terrace was a baker. Marie turned out to have three hundred francs,
and they got two baguettes of bread without coupons for five francs.
They went to a second-hand clothes shop of which there were many
in those days, Michael stuffing chunks of bread in his mouth as
they went along. Marie bought an old peasant woman's black dress
but it made her look more like a high school girl going to a party
than like a farm woman. Michael got a dark blue blouse such as
farmers and mechanics wore, and still wear, in France.
I can't vouch for how many Vichy
francs a baguette cost, with or without coupons, but I'd be willing
to wager Koning has it right. In the 1871 segments, too, he manages
to evoke a palpably recognizable France:
"'We'll be back tomorrow
morning. And if we find that you have warned off this nephew,
we'll arrest you in his place. So you better watch it, you asshole.'
That was the government agent, Jules, calling me that."
At which juncture Koning interjects
the following somewhat pedantic but entirely accurate authorial
observation: "(What the detective actually will have said is,
Vieux con, old cunt, which is the precise equivalent of
our modern 'asshole.')" Indeed. And that government flunkey's
modern-day incarnation would say exactly the same thing. Plus
But it isn't just everyday life
Koning describes so well. He scrutinizes the fallibility of human
nature with equal clarity, as when Michael and Marie cross a Vichy-manned
The officer had a ghost
of a smile for all this vivacity or possibly he liked the touch
of cruelty with which Michael pushed the girl's face up at him,
and he turned to the next person, a man who was already searching
his pockets with a puzzled frown, or a fake-puzzled frown.
It takes a piercing eye to note
the possibility of the officer liking that "touch of cruelty"
and the applicant's "fake-puzzled frown." It's a description worthy
of the French Naturalists: This passage gives off the sickly-sweet
scent of raw human nature that rises from the writing of Maupassant.
The devil is truly in these details, through which the world of
Michael Beauchamp's 1941 comes vividly to life with 1871 looming
in the middle distance like a giant oak tree half-hidden in the
fog. But the earlier story suddenly comes into sharper focus at
a crucial point further along in Michael's travels. Having barely
made it across the the Pyrenees to a monastery in Spain with the
wounded Marie, he stumbles upon evidence of his grandfather Michel's
earlier sojourn at the same monastery. He thereby discovers a
connection across time that saves Marie's life (and possibly his
own) and clears up a long-standing family mystery.
Word has it that NewSouth plans
to publish, or re-publish, most of Koning's work, and Zeeland
is a good place to start. Except for a few meandering authorial
digressions, the novel maintains a cracking pace from start to
finish. The characters and their settings linger like a vivid
dream. It's quite an accomplishment that in a scant 250 pages
Koning manages to make the different strands—the fugal development
of the two Beauchamp stories, the war's fearsome backdrop, the
heart-rending losses, Michael's redemption—mesh harmoniously.
It's a feat of economy and precision. <
Roger Boylan is author of the novel Killoyle, An Irish
Farce. His new novel, Killoylers, will be published
in fall 2002.
in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston