Peter Terrin plays with mystery, sci-fi and sadness in the cut-down ‘The Event’

To say that Peter Terrin (53) has a solid writing cadence is an understatement. Few novelists have left their mark on Flemish literature in recent years, with a string of high-quality novels – by Yucca (2016) and Patricia (2018) to All the blue (2021) – he always uses new, daring facets of his imagination. Where is the alluring oeuvre prize?

It’s hard to get around. Terrin’s books have become less claustrophobic, more suggestive perhaps, also a little more exciting, more moving in any case with the typical short sentence bubbles that he chains together. “It’s my favorite way to work. I look through the window. And then there is a sudden burst of sentences, a rounded island of words. Almost stories or miniatures in themselves,” he said The morning in response to All the blue.

And, Terrin also claimed at the time, “more air and light has crept in”, despite the sometimes melancholic Eighties tone. All the blue. A good year and a half later, Terrin is back at the apple The event, a title that suits him perfectly. ‘A subtly brilliant novel-within-stories of international appeal’, the text haughtily reads. But another book that you don’t close too cheerfully.

The event is a complex structure that only slowly reveals its secrets. There are science fiction elements to it and a lot of shifting narrative perspectives. Sometimes it feels as if we, as surprised readers, are transported on a rolling carpet and pass richly filled viewing cabinets.

In it, trancher de vie takes place, which we observe behind a glass wall, like a short film. With a series of recurring characters that mix contours and motifs that Terrin wants to mask as cogs. There is always a small event that causes an epiphany or a final turning point. Or as it goes somewhere: ‘There are moments you retell to others as soon as the opportunity arises, to reject them, to reinforce them. Other moments are hardly meaningful, but you carry with you everywhere like a coin in the tip of your pocket.’

Inheritance struggle

Sound cryptic? That’s how it is sometimes. You still can’t say that The event an inaccessible book, far from it. Terrin writes in a fairly clean, clear, still frill-free, if sometimes more lyrical way. A lot crosses our path, with the central anchor point being the very old, blind but successful writer Willem, who dictates his books to Juliette, a middle-aged woman who is his chosen one and assistant. To the horror of his much younger wife Femke.

After his death, a succession battle breaks out. Has his collection of original manuscripts and a memory stick of recent dictations really been assigned to Juliette? Additionally, his brain contents are uploaded in what appears to be a deadly experiment (iHead). The saga surrounding the author struggles with a certain roughness. More fascinating is what Terrin does next. Because do we then read the stories or unfinished novel fragments that Willem left behind and Juliette polished up? Quite possible. In any case, Juliette has the feeling that ‘Willem is taking possession of her. (…) In his prose they are together as no one else in the world can’.

Terrin returns to the process of the film shortcuts by Robert Altman (1993), based on stories by Raymond Carver, recently referred to by Guido van Heeulendonk? For example, there are the childhood memories of Frédéric, who on Christmas Eve has to track down the missing miniature poodle Pruts and, to his sister Rosa’s horror, appears to be in default. The same Rosa later becomes Juliette’s neighbor and develops a relationship with Kurt, the character who works in a nursing home and pays special attention to Jacqueline, who has suffered a stroke.

And there – at the window of the evening rest – is the man in the green lead coat, who comes to wave to his terminal wife and occasionally takes Anna home with him. The painter, Michel, like Willem, is successful later in life. Michel even dares to house his mistress Frouke in his house while he is still alive. Isn’t this actress a reflection of Willem’s widow Femke? And is she responsible for Anna’s sudden death? Terrin plays with mystery, with tension, with sadness, with sudden outbursts, but also with leaping happiness – as between Kurt and Rosa – in often brilliant stories that sometimes surprise by their brevity, but then fan out for too long.

In particular, he eagerly plays with the droste effect (he already did that in after death) and lets us once again enter the echo chambers of his literary palace of mirrors. For example, the character Kurt says: ‘When he thinks about the novel and the improbable things that have happened to him in recent days, he gets the feeling that he himself is living in a book.’

By the exit of The event the puzzle pretty much falls together. However, Terrin leaves plenty to discover for literary fans. He plays with references to the world of theater (nodding to the performances of FC Bergman), to James Salter (one of his favorite authors), or he weaves carefully into the pandemic. Also pay attention to the symbolism given to dogs and cats. The event is a ‘network novel’, but also a reading expedition full of side paths and byways that take some time to settle in. Yet you are immediately drawn to another, more unraveling read.

Peter Terrin, ‘The Event’, De Bezige Bij, 220 pp, €23.99.picture rv

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