Friday, August 21, 2009
Jef Geeraerts, The Public Prosecutor
The Public Prosecutor, by Belgian author Jef Geeraerts (translated by Brian Doyle) is a very dark thriller that reminded me alternately of Dominique Manotti's crime novels and Evelyn Waugh's satirical novels. The novel has a terse, almost pictorial style, with multiple points of view (which is what reminded me of various of Manotti's books) and a dark, dyspeptic view of humanity (and of the characters in the story) reminiscent of Waugh's early books, in which there are no heroes and no positive outcomes. Albert Savelkoul, the closest thing to a central character in the novel, is an Antwerp public prosecutor with a good deal of power and plenty of money (some of it not strictly legal), but also a wife he detests and a mistress who is beginning to wander. Courtesy of his wife and son, he will soon also have Opus Dei, the dark underside of Catholic piety, to contend with. What ensues is comic but without jokes: the plot's machinery purrs along toward a conclusion that will not be foreseen but is inevitable, once you get there. There's plenty of violence (social, psychological, and literal) but no murder until the very end. Instead of a crime investigation, the reader sees various self-interested parties in conflict, conspiring against one another even when they don't know that the other is pursuing them. Private investigators working for Opus Dei set in motion one plotline when the bungle a surveillance, leading to the death of a dog (theirs) and a horse (their target's). Savelkoul is thrust into an investigation of his own while his private life shifts from complacency into fears for his health and the discovery of perhaps the love of his life.
He's also plotting against the unseen forces that are ranged against him, and using unsavory associates in ways that implicate him in their violence. Apart from Savelkoul, the most vivid characters are the several Opus Dei members that are seen conspiring to strip Savelkoul's family of their money and property (for the glory of God and Opus Dei) and the family's Polish maid. The Opus Dei sections are quite descriptive (though who knows how accurate) about that secretive organization: chilling in their depiction of ruthlessness and the members' extreme piety. Some readers may not be happy with the conclusion, but Geeraerts is not writing a conventional thriller, he's investigating corrupion in Belgian politics and in religious extremism of the home-grown variety. A sunnier ending would betray his satirical and social purpose, as well as violating the tone and thrust of the story. The Public Prosecutor is one of the sharpest, darkest, and in its own way most enjoyable of the estimable Bitter Lemon Press's recent publications. The actual Bitter Lemon cover suggests the class pretensions of some of the characters--an alternate cover that's posted at fantasticfiction.co.uk is more ominous and ambiguous, but are actually a depiction of a woman with a horse, suggesting one element of the story and also the upper-class ambience. All in all I think I like the one they actually published better.