What do you do with the keys to a house that no longer exists? Ahmed still has his house key in his pocket, even though his home is in ruins, like his war-torn country. He was once a violinist, now a refugee. After a terrible sailing trip across the Mediterranean, via even more terrible refugee camps, he ends up in a Dutch allotment complex. The gardeners are not exactly thrilled with Ahmed’s arrival. Only Mari likes him being there; she offers him a place in her home. Is Ahmed happy about it? Not really. He hates the role of polite beggar that he is forced to assume. “A beggar cannot appear angry, not arrogant or aggressive, he must be what the world wants him to be.” When he can’t take it anymore, he reaches into his pocket and presses his fingers against the sharp part of his old house key.
It is details like with the key that show how attentive Wytske Versteeg (1983) is in her fifth novel The golden hour. Another: every night after brushing his teeth, Ahmed puts his toothbrush back in his backpack. This could mean anything: is Ahmed trying to fill as little space as possible, does he expect to have to escape at any moment, or does he not want to give a permanent character to his stay with Mari?
Bruises and creeps
Versteeg could not have come up with such things without being close to her characters. In previous works, she already showed herself as a writer with great empathy. She prefers to delve into the ones no one else wants to delve into: bruises and creeps. A sick girl and a monstrous uncle in his debut the empty fields (2012). A disfigured, hateful surgeon and his pathetic wife i Quarantine (2015). A sad, recognition-hungry boy and a dark, faceless man inside Dirt (2017).
But no matter how strange or unpleasant her characters are, Versteeg always manages to bring them close to the reader through the right observations. She does it again The golden hour, where she brings together three sick figures: The lonely Mari takes on the cynical Ahmed, who has escaped from the regime for which Tarik – once a guard in a notorious torture camp – worked. Later, Tarik becomes Mari’s guide. Perpetrator, victim and aid worker – an uncertain love triangle that Versteeg portrays by alternately letting them speak. The big question: who really depends on whom here? In other words, who has power over whom? A question that Versteeg has already explored in previous novels. She always pits strong and weak characters against each other, often in a dark world full of grotesque elements. The golden hour, with descriptions of a country at war and an allotment complex in crisis, is her most realistic novel to date. Although you can also say that the world has become so bizarre that Versteeg no longer has to invent anything.
The essence of the characters
What Mari, Ahmed and Tarik are doing (searching for cave paintings, waiting for residency, torturing people) or where they are (in a garden, a bombed city or in the mountains) is not the most important thing in this novel. It’s about the character of the characters. Characters who aren’t all good or bad, or victim or perpetrator (but of course that’s the case in any interesting novel). Mari’s altruism has everything to do with her loneliness. Tarik’s role as a guard has made him a prisoner of his memories of the camp. And Ahmed – the most pitiful of the trio – is the most unlikeable. His total bitterness over his situation is unbearable. Boy, make the most of it, you keep thinking. Until you realize that’s exactly what all the well-meaning aid workers around Ahmed are thinking too, and that’s exactly what infuriates him. “Perhaps I should be grateful to you,” Ahmed writes to Mari. “But gratitude does not exist without hatred.”
It is a humiliating picture that Versteeg paints of assistance: everyone who receives assistance is humiliated a little, everyone who gives assistance does so for himself. To really help someone seems impossible, just as it seems impossible – at least in Versteeg’s work – to make real contact with another person. We get in the way too much. The sad picture of humanity is in line with Versteeg’s writing style: a bit stiff – prose that doesn’t just reveal itself. You have to read carefully to see what Versteeg will show you; pay attention to these details. But anyone who takes the trouble can count on suddenly lyrical descriptions, full of warmth. The golden hour is the moment of the day when everything is bathed in the merciful light of the setting sun. This is precisely what Versteeg has to offer his characters and the reader. Yes, there is strife, loneliness and injustice, but every now and then there is a moment when everything is bathed in the soft, light glow and there is hope for all.
Wytske Versteeg: The golden hour. Querido; 332 pages; €22.99.