I’m happy that in this novel, Dimitri Verhulst once again concentrates on the individual rather than enlarging on the topic of how humanity as a whole is rotten beyond redemption – I always like his more personal work better than his world-encompassing ones. (Of course, I have no idea if there’s a clear sense of direction in Verhulst’s life-work, as most of his work isn’t available in any of the languages I speak.)
The Latecomer’s protagonist is 74-year-old Désiré, who’s had enough of all this stuff we conveniently refer to as life (most of all, he’s had enough of his conventionally frigid dragon of a wife, Monika), but then he has a brainwave and because at the age of 74 there just aren’t that many escape routes available anymore, he decides to put on a charade: he pretends that he suffers from dementia so that he can end up in a nursing home and finally be free from the nuisance of the outside world (mostly from Monika).
From Désiré’s flashback sections we slowly learn about his youthful dreams (I hardly need to say what happened to those) and we also learn about the details of his life with Monika, with special emphasis on the tensions, betrayals, and lies of said life. (As a bonus, you can also learn how to pretend to have Alzheimer’s disease – this might come in handy one day.)
And Désiré’s style is so deliciously dark and cynical that it cracks me up. Once, for instance, he’s contemplating his funeral arrangements and he says he doesn’t give a damn what kind of funeral he gets, the only thing is that he’d prefer not to lie next to Monika in his death as they’d spent their lives lying next to each other like dead bodies, so there’s no need to continue with this after death.
Verhulst is again at the height of his cynicism, and this time I feel it’s not just random bitterness thrown all over the place, but something well-warranted. Who wouldn’t be cynical and who wouldn’t take refuge in pitch-dark humor, after all, when he realizes at the age of 74 that he’s probably about to die pretty soon and that all this – life – was simply stupid and meaningless.
But – and I’m especially happy about this – it seems to me again that Verhulst actually likes humans, or if he doesn’t like them, at least he has lots of empathy and compassion for them. Because sure, we can laugh at all the nosy pensioners living in Désiré’s street who suddenly must mow their lawn and check their post box every minute on the morning when the family prepares to transport Désiré to the nursing home – but we also feel that the pensioners don’t just gawk around because they are nosy – they are also contemplating how they might be the next ones to end up there.
Verhulst here is also concerned with the questions of what makes a life meaningful and worth living. And at first glance, Désiré’s life is nothing special – he’s had an OK time in his life, working in a library, drinking red wine, feeding the birds – but the need for something else was ever-present in his life, and so was the awareness that probably he shouldn’t have married such a woman as Monika, a woman insanely and exclusively concerned about the look of things, and that he probably could have done lots of other things instead. (Just an example to illustrate Monika’s habits – being obsessed with recording the family idyll in the most perfect way imaginable, she once makes Désiré blow the candles on his birthday cake 9 times until she can capture the moment satisfactorily.)
And still – it hasn’t been, it couldn’t have been such a dreadful life. If a man at the age of 74 still has such an excellent sense of humor, and is still able to reinvent his life in a manner, then that man must be in possession of wonderful creative forces and energy. Of course, he could have possibly used all this creativity and energy for some other purpose, but perhaps this is life, and perhaps screwing things up is a must, just so that later you’ll have something to quietly accept, or something to laugh about cynically and with exquisite self-deprecation.