The 1970s were the miraculous decade of American literary postmodernism when some of the wildest and most daring novels were published: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father (1975) Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), John Barth’s LETTERS (1979). Judging by the odds and ends of scarcely available information, Dutch writer Jacq Firmin Vogelaar’s wacko creation Raadsels van het rund (1978) belongs to the same paradigm as those novels, and had it been translated into English, we might now be mentioning it in the same breath as the metafictional monstrosities of Barth and Coover.
The protagonist of the novel is architect Ekke who is assigned the task of creating outlandish machines, using a manual written by Leonardo da Vinci. The machine construction, an apt metaphor for producing texts at the heyday of postmodernism, goes inevitably awry with each attempt, and one starts wondering if Ekke was fooled into a senseless yet very sophisticated wild-goose chase whose only purpose is to show the futility of encapsulating the exponentially growing amounts of knowledge. The elusive substance “forza” mentioned in the great Florentine’s document is the philosopher’s stone of Ekke’s neo-alchemical pursuit, and, for all we know, it might stand for the grand signifier itself. J.F. Vogelaar’s novel is a mash-up of various genres, at different points assuming the guises of the historical novel, the essay, and the encyclopedia, complete with an appendix featuring profiles of great representatives of the Renaissance. The enthusiasts of Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys’s concept of New Babylon (an anti-capitalist city built of inter-linked mega-structures above the surface of the earth for the leisurely activities of Homo Ludens) will be delighted to find in the novel a critical examination of this idea. Perplexing, meandering, and erudite, Raadsels van het rund has a lot to offer both content-wise, and linguistically. The fact that some of the Dutch critics branded the novel as “unreadable” is a good sign. The only English-language description of the novel I was able to dredge, and to which I am mostly indebted for writing this post, is Anthony Merten’s article Postmodern Elements in Postwar Dutch Fiction. Let me quote this brief summary of the novel, which is likely to make you yearn for its translation as it made yours truly:
The novel stages in various ways all the themes that are prominent in the debate on modernity (technology, progress, power, the role of the intellectual), but always in relation to rewritings of texts that are borrowed from the historiography of the modern period and from various representatives of modern literature (from Beckett, Flaubert, Musil, Valéry to Gaddis and Patchen). […] it is a historical novel in a reverse sense, a novel that tries to present its own history. Ekke’s assignment reflects the ways in which the collected textual materials are processed. Time and again these are put into a spotlight so that the ‘forza’ may be tracked down. Next to these eight chapters we find in the novel an appendix in which the profiles of five ‘contemporaries’ are presented: Leonardo, Faust, Paracelsus, Jan Hus and Heinrich Anton M. – the last one a schizophrenic who also constructed machines – and whose activities refer to the so-called ‘art brut’ to which the novel will every now and then refer. […] References to the mannerist art of the 16th and 17th centuries evoke a picture of the historical genre as an (alchemist) laboratory in which chemicals (in this case historical documents) form compounds, are decomposed, melted down, and analysed. […] The book itself is written out of a sense of possibilities rather than out of a sense of what’s real. In this way there is a relation with Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften.