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Harry Mulisch: Hoogste tijd (Last Call)

The Dutch (and German) titles of this book translate as high time, i.e. with the sense that it really is time something was done or happened. However, the English title might, in this case, be as good as the original, as it is, indeed, the last call both of the main character as well as the theatre in which he is performing. The Tempest, the Shakespeare play which plays an important role in this book, may also have been Shakespeare’s last call, at least as a solo effort. Willem Bouwmeester (known as Uli to his friends and family) is a retired second-rate vaudeville actor. He comes from a distinguished acting family but he himself never really made the grade. He played minor roles in vaudeville and only got better roles during the war when many of his fellow actors, particularly the Jewish ones, disappeared. As his mother was German and he spoke fluent German, he even managed to get some roles in Germany. After the war, however, he was detained a as collaborator. Perhaps because he had a German mother, he only got six months in prison but, of course, his career, such as it was, was finished. After various odd jobs, he managed to end up as the manager of a second-rate night club, frequented mainly by journalists. When the night club was closed down to build a new metro line, he lost his job but was compensated with a house in a new suburb. He now lives there, with his sister Berta, also a former actress, waiting to die. He had been married but it had not been a happy one and, as he said, he regretted the death of his dog more than the death of his wife. Berta had been married twice, once divorced (her choice) and once widowed.

One day he receives a letter from a producer at the Authors’ Theatre saying that they had tried to phone him but he did not seem to have a phone (he does not) and that, if he did not object, they planned to visit him about a role they wanted him to play. They offer him the lead role in a play they are shortly to put on (at short notice, as another one has been unexpectedly cancelled). It is a modern play about the staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The plot also bears a resemblance to the plot of The Tempest. Uli is mildly concerned that the character that he is to play is gay but is prepared to accept it for the role. His concern dates from the war when, in an air raid shelter in Berlin, he had a brief homosexual encounter with another man. No-one knows about this and he never saw the man again. It turns out that that the director of the play had found Uli’s photo thirty years ago in a collection of photos from a casting agency on sale in a market and had always wanted to cast him in a play and this one was ideal.

Uli signs on and has a few surprises. Firstly, all the cast use their real names for the parts they are playing, except for him. The director says that he does not want the name Bouwmeester to be a distraction. However, the name he has been given – Pierre de Vries – pleases him. The cast, who are members of the company are naturally younger than him, much younger in most cases, though he soon takes an interest in a very young woman, Stella, young enough to be his granddaughter. There is a lot of bickering between the cast but he soon gets used to it. However, his real shock comes when he finally gets to meet the author, who is aggressive and unpleasant. However, it is the author who suggests the use of a live animal in the production. Berta’s dog, Joost, is roped in and, of course, Berta has to be there to supervise him (and get a contract for him). Berta soon mixes in well with the rest of the cast.

We follow the story of how the rehearsals develop as well as some of Uli’s extramural activities. There are disagreements, disputes and serious problems, particularly when the theatre learns that it is to lose its government subsidy. Uli gets into various difficulties, including a TV interview when he is too frank and his wartime activities seem to be revealed, as well as getting caught by a gang of youths when he is on a midnight escapade and ending up in the bedroom of a transsexual. But it is also clear to us that Uli is not in the best of health and we have to wonder whether he is up to the task at hand. However, they get through to the dress rehearsal and it is at this point that Mulisch’s imagination gets somewhat out of hand.

Despite the final part, it is another fine work from Mulisch, both as a tribute to as well as mild mockery of the Dutch theatre. We do get to see some of his favourite themes, such as the strange effect war has on people, father-son relations (Uli’s late father is an ever-present influence) and even in his allowing himself to get carried away at the end. But Uli is a fascinating character as are several of the theatrical people and as a portrait of how a play is put on and the strange people involved in putting it on, it is certainly worth reading.

Publishing history

First published in 1985 by De Bezige Bij
First published in English in 1989 by Viking