Joep’s wonderlijke avonturen
When I first read Herman Heijermans’ “Joeps wonderlijke avonturen” (Jack’s Wondrous Adventures) I was pleasantly surprised for two reasons. The first was that it was by far not as bad as I had expected based on what little I knew from Heijermans, third hand knowledge I had about his play “Op hoop van zegen” (translated in English in 1928 as The Good Hope). You see, in the days I first read Joep’s, a film had been made of the play; and though I had not read the play, nor watched the play or watched the movie, the latter was talked about so much that it was hard not to escape the idea that “Op hoop van zegen” was melodramatic trash.
The second was that for a large part, Joep’s is a sort of Dutch Frankenstein. Although there apparently were some late 19th / early 20th century Dutch authors that had dabbled in the fantastic (I am thinking of Carel van Nievelt), back then I had yet to come across one.
Joep’s tells the story of a man who has lost sight in both eyes. An eccentric professor tells Joep that he can cure him by transplanting animal eyes. Having little to lose, Joep agrees to the procedure. Unfortunately, he manages to damage his new eyes on several occasions and has to get new ones.
Shelley’s story about Frankenstein’s monster is typically pessimistic in tone; it questions what makes us human, and whether this ‘what’ can be transplanted into non-human beings. And when does a human being lose his humanity? Joep’s does something similar; when the protagonist gets a different animal’s eyes, his character changes too.
This character growth is for the long term though, and so the story nicely segues into its second half. Where Joep starts out as a major misanthropist, his regained eyesight also forces him to see not just his surroundings through new eyes, but also himself.
Upon second reading, the book has lost some of its sparkle to me. Authors could be very wordy in those days, and from what I have read by Heijermans, he particularly seemed to like the sound of his own written voice. The “what I’ve read by” includes fragments of Diamantstad, which ends on a very moralistic note, as does Joep’s. Something I could have done without, especially since Heijermans proves himself to be a talented author otherwise. Critics of his time claimed that his lack of quality was the result of his prolific output. In 1908, the year he published Joep’s, he published four other works. Speaking in his defense though, Heijermans has a knack of realistically shielding the protagonist from seeing other characters the way the reader sees them, which can produce nice foreboding, if the author can pull it off.
I had hoped to send this book to Project Gutenberg, but unfortunately my copy is from 1934, whereas PG for copyright reasons only takes works printed before 1923.