In Flanders during the First World War, David Verbocht, a young Belgian schoolteacher, stands before a firing squad, sentenced to death as a deserter.
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He lyrically prophesies: “I’ll be as cold as the earth, as the frost on the branches on the beech. As the air.”
In his last moments David reflects on his life and the circumstances that led to where he is now. How did he end up here? Is he the victim of circumstances or did he bring this on himself?
Jan Vantoortelboom’s beautifully written novel His Name Is David shows how guilt can ruin a life.
The light, poetic prose, disguising a heavy theme, consists of a series of vignettes hopping from past to present as it captures significant freeze frames in the protagonist’s life, from childhood, to school teacher and ultimately to soldier.
The telling is in the detail, as, for example, when the author describes farmer Verschoppen’s clothes as the same colour as the cobbles he was walking on, and his wife Godaleva, with whom David falls in love and who is the mother of the tragic Marcus, he observes as she pours coffee, “the gentle slope from her knuckles down to the wrists, the slightly tanned skin”.
The narrative treats of an angst-ridden young man grappling with the loss of his religious faith.
David teaches in a tightly controlled religious environment but does not believe in a life after death, and he thinks of his father, who taught him that faith was a weakness.
The visceral world witnessed by the sensitive David leaves its mark. As a boy he beheld the axe used by his father to chop the chickens’ heads off, and hearing the local butcher chopping through bone “went through me like a knife”.
And later as a teacher he finds himself admonishing a pupil to set a butterfly free.
Vantoortelboom, although he studied in Dublin, was possibly unacquainted with the writing of Patrick Pearse, but he shows a remarkable affinity with the patriot in their mutual poetic sentience of the world.
The sadness that lies in the beauty of the world which Pearse wrote about has echoes running as a motif throughout the Belgian’s novel.
David, an imaginative, impressionable child who the world treated to nightmares, understands the deepest recess of forests “where you could feel the wood itself take a deep breath”.
Whether he is friending a hedgehog which he delineates with Darwinian accuracy or detailing the effects of a wasp’s sting, the protagonist shows himself as an acute observer of the sensory.
Nature is setup in the novel as a parallel universe to the manmade world of violence and war. Not that David doesn’t recognise that nature can also be red in tooth and claw.
The difference is, while nature follows its inevitable universal and timeless laws, man imposes and interferes with the natural design of things.
Vantoortelboom recounts the tragedies that befall David: the suicide of his younger brother with the rather cold nickname of Ratface, his sensitive pupil Marcus whose death by drowning David blames himself for because he refused his embrace.
For a relatively young writer, Vantoortelboom strikes a powerfully emotive chord: the desperation some individual souls carry inside themselves.
The atmosphere of the First World War in Flanders is well conjured, down to the trains with “the click-clacking of rails and the whistling steam”.
The former sensitive boy shows courage as a soldier and is not afraid to use a bayonet. He wins the respect of his comrades in the trenches and even teaches some how to write so they can send letters to their loved ones.
Ultimately beset by too many chimeras and the memory of Marcus, David wanders away homewards, heading for the elusive finish line staring at whatever lies “hidden behind the clouds”.
James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll; jameslawless.net
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