I don’t know what the literal translation of De Inscheper is (I have a feeling there isn’t one), but Man on the Move is certainly an accurate description of the central character, Rob’s, restlessness in this short novel by the Dutch writer, Otto de Kat. However, don’t expect the narrative to undertake a similar journey; instead it circles like a dog looking for somewhere to settle, imitating the psychological nature of Rob’s travels which are as much about searching for meaning in his past as they are about finding a place where he feels at home.
Rob’s journey begins with a desperate need to escape his family and a chance meeting with Albert Schweitzer. Rob already determined to escape from what he sees as the parochial and predestined life of his home town:
“He was battling against the life there….He could not breathe, did not want to become like the others, his father, his brothers, his friends.”
Rob’s desire to escape is, above all, a desire to free himself from his father:
“His brave, tiny, unreachable father. How slowly he drifted apart from him, how unavoidably did he want to hurt him, shake him off, alienate him.”
When he hears Schweitzer, invited by his father to play the organ at the local church to raise funds for his work, speak of Africa, he makes a decision to go there. Schweitzer is not a role model for him – indeed, they might be seen as opposites. Whereas Schweitzer talks of “how he was bound by an overpowering urge to give meaning to whatever he did”, it is lack of meaning which haunts Rob. Whereas Schweitzer works in the remotest parts of the continent, Rob heads for South Africa where he hopes to make his fortune. His first act once on the boat is to tear in two the letters of introduction his father has given him.
When Rob arrives in South Africa he gets a job working in a gold mine. There he befriends a young black boy, Yoshua, one of only two friendships in the novel (the other being with Guus, a fellow prisoner of the Japanese). In both cases the friendship begins when they are close together in a dangerous place (“The treacherous, deadly mine, the lurking beast”), and in both cases the other person dies, to some extent saving Rob’s life. Yoshua shouts out a warning; Guus dives into the sea knowing he can’t swim, but encouraging Rob to save himself. Both deaths, to some degree, leave Rob rudderless.
By this time the Second World War has broken out and Rob travels from South Africa to join the Dutch army in the defence of Java, which quickly leads to him becoming a captive of the Japanese. De Kat describes the forced marches vividly. It is here that he befriends Guus, an alternate version of himself, whose mother is dead (when Rob thinks of returning to Holland, it is the thought of his mother that prevents him) and who enjoys a good relationship with his father. Whereas Rob finds objects that remind him of home almost unbearable-
“The desk, the curtains, the carpet, the objects everywhere, the pain it caused him was just too great.”
– Guus finds refuge in objects. Having played under his mother’s piano as a child, he continues to find comfort in playing the piano as an adult. They become close friends, talking to each other about their lives, though it is noticeable that later in the narrative there are things that he hadn’t told Guus.
After the war, Rob buys and runs a bar, meeting a woman there and developing the only other relationship in the novel. This he ends himself by selling the bar for no other reason than to move on, finishing his time in South Africa as an encyclopaedia salesman. He returns home as his mother is dying, but arrives only after her death. He seems at his lowest point:
“Why didn’t he tell him he was dying, that he was all used up inside, that the pain and the exhaustion had nothing to do with his back?”
A meeting with Guus’ father, however, seems to give him some hope for the future, or at least a sense of belonging to his new life.
Although brief, this is a novel which stays in the mind. This is partly down to the way in which it develops as a series of vividly realised scenes, scenes which we often return to as we travel around the chronology of Rob’s life. Rob is a character whose anxiety over the meaninglessness of his life is often palpable, though, as close as we get to him, we are never intimate with him – something that might also be said for Guus. The novel is series of journeys: by boat, by foot, by plane. When it begins he is on a ship and at the end he is on a train. The story starts with a fruitless night ride on a motorbike and finishes with him thinking of his return to Cape Town. Clearly, the searching does not end.