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Hubert Lampo: De Komst van Joachim Stiller (The Coming of Joachim Stiller)

The narrator of this story, Freek Groenevelt, is a journalist who works for “a progressive paper”. He was also a novelist but had not been able to make a satisfactory living as a novelist so had taken up journalism. One day he notices a group of workmen come and take up the cobbles in a street he can see from his window. When this causes disruption to the traffic, they replace them that same day, without doing any other work. He writes an article in the paper, critical of the alderman for public works, though the alderman subsequently denies any such works have taken place, but suggests that there is some conspiracy going on to discredit him. The next day, his friend, Andreas, hands him a new magazine produced by a group of Young Turks, which attacks Groenevelt and his literary work. Groenevelt also receives a letter from someone called Joachim Stiller, predicting both the street repairs and Groenevelt’s article. The letter, however, was clearly written before Groenevelt’s birth (he later has the ink and stamp checked and this is confirmed).

It soon becomes clear that Stiller is connected not only with the road repair business but also the magazine attack, Groenevelt’s former schoolmate’s attempt to find a mysterious artist, who leaves traces of his work in public toilets and the writings of a 17th century German mystic called, of course, Joachim Stiller. Stiller also starts phoning Groenevelt, not for conversation but to spout aphorisms. Rumours start spreading round the city of the imminent end of the world, aided by the appositely named Mr. Angelo. A Circus Stiller comes to town and Groenevelt with his new girlfriend, Simone, the editor of the magazine that attacked him, attend it and are impressed by a mysterious harlequin.

Eventually, it is all too much for Groenevelt and he suffers a minor breakdown. When he visits a doctor to help him, he recalls an event in the war. He ran to catch a trolley but just missed it. However, the trolley is hit by a V1 bomb immediately after and a young GI is struck and dies at the feet of Groenevelt. Groenevelt picks up the GI’s wallet and notices his name. It is, of course, Joachim Stiller. Finally, Groenevelt receives a letter from Stiller, asking him to meet. Simone and Groenevelt go to the station to meet the arriving Stiller. They see him across the road – it looks like the man that Groenevelt saw killed in the war – but as Stiller crosses the road to meet them, he (Stiller) is hit by a car.

To this point this has been an excellent novel. Who is Stiller and where does he come from? The book is somewhat Kafkaesque but there is never any sense of fear or danger as in Kafka, only mystery. But it is at this point that the book, for me, completely breaks down. The body of Stiller is taken to the morgue and locked up. On the third day after his death, they go to the morgue and the body has somehow mysteriously disappeared. Yes, Christ has come back to Earth, specifically to Antwerp, played a few games with street repairs and literary reputations, been knocked down by a car and killed and risen again. Doesn’t work, does it?

Publishing history

First published in 1960 by Stols-Barth, The Hague
First English translation 1974 by Twayne
Translated by marga Emlyn-Jones(Twayne), Paul Vincent (Valancourt Books)