Maarten Asscher – The Shadow of a Friend
“So are you saying the photo’s a fake?” Kyra objected. “It was published in a mainstream Venezuelan magazine, and this is only a copy of that.”
“Yes, I understand that. The point is this: technically speaking, the photo’s authentic, but Leenheer was placed in the predicament in which he was photographed by three kidnappers. Comparable to someone whose clothes are stolen from the changing room at a sauna, and who is then blackmailed later with clandestinely made footage.”
She put the photograph back in its envelope. “My next question has to do with Marcel Houtsma…”
“Ah!”, the lawyer interrupted her right away, “yes, well let me tell you something about Marcel Houtsma.” Before Kyra had a chance to formulate her question, he barged ahead: “Houtsma roomed at Huize de Dieu, one of the city’s loveliest student residences. Originally built, I believe, as an orphanage, but for decades it’s been inhabited by about thirty students; exclusively male students, as stipulated by the foundation that owns the building. You’ve probably never been there, but it’s a huge canal-side house with three floors around a large courtyard. I don’t know what it’s like now, probably more or less the same, but back then it was always a complete and convivial mess. Posted on the inside of the front door was a sign reading “Wipe your feet”. On the inside, not on the outside, ha! If you catch my drift.”
Kyra decided not to react. She could tell that Van Lynden had no intention of being interrupted, and she let him go on for the moment.
“It goes without saying that in a house like that, cleaning the windows did not enjoy the highest priority. Still, it had to be done every year, otherwise you couldn’t see outside.”
She put down her pen on the table and listened noncommittally.
“So that was a chore for the pledges. The ground floor, they had no problem getting to that, and with a ladder the first floor was doable as well. But the top floor, now that was a problem. Do you know how they solved it?”
“I have no idea,” Kyra said without having given it any thought at all.
“Well,” he went on, grinning broadly, “two senior members would take a designated pledge up through the attic and onto the roof and then, standing in the gutter, they would hold that pledge by the ankles and lower him down, so he could clean the windows upside-down with a bucket and a sponge.” Edgar van Lynden slapped the flat of his hand on the table in mirth.
The story didn’t elicit much cheer from Kyra. “When I asked about Mr. Houtsma, an anecdote like that isn’t quite what I had in mind.”
“I can well imagine, but I wanted to relate it anyway, because there was one member of the house who always succeeded in dodging his turn as inverted window washer, and that was my good friend Marcel Houtsma. I have no idea how he did it, but somehow he always found a way out.”
“Charming,” she said. “Still, the commercial court in Amsterdam did convict Houtsma of having committed unlawful business practices during his time at Energon. So he doesn’t always find a way out, apparently.”
“When you use the term ‘convict’,” Hugo’s father responded quickly, sounding lawyerlike now, “you imply that he was ruled personally accountable or even prosecuted. Neither implication is correct. And in that same pronouncement, the government was given a sound dressing-down for constantly changing the rules concerning the development and subsidization of alternative energy sources. There wasn’t a whole lot that could be blamed on Houtsma in his role on the supervisory board, if you ask me. And absolutely no one ever demanded, let alone received, a penny of compensation from him.’ Van Lynden paused, then went on: “But meanwhile, I‘m starting to understand a bit about what you’re trying to find out with your research and, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to say something in general about that.”
“But you did get hold of my grant application, didn’t you? So you were well aware of my plans all along.”
“Aside from which,” Van Lynden said, dodging the accusation, “I don’t see how the vicissitudes of a few of Wiegers’ old chums can help you to develop an understanding of his views, let alone contend with them more effectively. Wiegers’ political opinions are clear enough. He himself makes absolutely no bones about them, and everyone is free to think what they wish. Why don’t you focus on that instead? I’m saying this absolutely devoid of personal interest. Take another of my former fraternity brothers, for example: Philip Landsberg. An entirely apolitical person, if you ask me, a dyed-in-the-wool scientist who’s happiest when he’s allowed to worry only about four-thousand-year-old Mesopotamian clay tablets. What in the world does he have to do with purportedly discriminatory or otherwise disputable comments by Xavier Wiegers, simply because the two of them happened to belong to the same fraternity forty years ago and happened to be in the same year together?”
“The question for me, as I tried to explain just a minute ago, is this: what did that fraternity and that particular group from that particular matriculating year contribute to the development of Wiegers’ hard-right views, and what moral responsibility do all of you, as his friends, still bear to call him to account for those views?”
“May I ask,” Van Lynden went on in a very different tone of voice, “whether you yourself were ever a member of a fraternal student organization?”
“Absolutely not,” Kyra answered from the bottom of her heart.
“You don’t approve of them.”
“Well, it’s just not exactly the world I live in.”
“All right, but there are huge differences between fraternities, and what’s more, not all groups of matriculants are the same. I assume that fraternity life has also changed through the years.”
“I wonder about that too, every time I read about those horrific hazing rituals or see a group of them acting-out on the street. What appalls me is the way the same kind of people all band together and then do everything in their power to resemble each other even more.”
“You have every right to feel that way, but my next question is then: who’s responsible for your political views?”
“I’m responsible for them myself, of course.”
“Then wouldn’t it be reasonable to draw the same conclusion about Xavier Wiegers?”
“What I mean to say is that he’s responsible for his own views. So isn’t he, therefore – he and he alone – the only one who can be called to account for them, there where those views would seem to you to fall short of or even violate the boundaries of propriety? You don’t have to agree right away, but after the apologies we exchanged earlier, this could be yet another outcome of our conversation; that both of us continue to keep an eye on Xavier Wiegers, regarding both his life and career, based on our respective roles: you as a critical journalist in the public media, I as his friend in private conclave.”
“In any case, I’m definitely not going to drop the subject,” Kyra responded assertively.
“I realize that, but I was trying to reformulate what the subject really is.”
Kyra looked pointedly at her host, but decided not to go on raising objections. It was clear to her by now just how far Van Lynden was willing to go with his answers. He glanced at his watch, “It also seems like a good idea to me to leave it at this for the time being.”
Closing her notepad and putting away her pen, she said in a neutral tone: “I’d like to thank you for talking to me. I appreciate your willingness to meet with me on such short notice.”
“Excellent,” he concluded. Did she note a certain relief on his part, or did it only seem that way? Still, he went on a bit: “Perhaps it would be good, in practical terms, to say something about that eavesdropping incident at the restaurant. As far as I’m concerned, only Hugo and I know about that. I see no need for that story to take on a life of its own. You yourself, I take it, would stand to gain nothing by that either.” She tried to read his expression, to see what Van Lynden meant exactly by this comment. But he was already talking on: “Undoubtedly, we’ll both be reporting to Hugo, and perhaps we’ll have the opportunity to speak again in a more relaxed setting. In any case, I wish you a great deal of success in completing your article. May I assume that I’ll have a chance later to check and approve of any direct quotes ascribed to me?”
Kyra promised, and after exchanging nods they both pushed back their chairs at the same time and stood up. Her glass of water was still on the table, untouched. She followed her host back down the stairs, wordlessly, to the hallway, and bid him farewell in the reception area.
Having passed through the revolving doors a minute later, Kyra found herself back on the sunny square, with the rear entrance to the station on the far side. Had she made full use of the opportunities provided by this brief interview? she asked herself as she walked and the tension slowly slipped away. She hadn’t noted any truly malicious intent on Van Lynden’s part, more like the old-fashioned naïveté of someone who, from the sound of it, had never really left the past behind. She was itching to get home and type out her notes, and brimming over with questions. Could it be that this experienced lawyer really didn’t see what an evil person Xavier Wiegers was? Or was he painting a far more innocent picture of that sophomoric clique of friends than reality might justify? And then, at the end of their conversation, had he actually been threatening her with the public disclosure of her so-called ‘unlawful eavesdropping’, or had he in fact meant what he said as a reassurance, to say that he was prepared to keep the whole episode to himself? Wouldn’t it be better to confess the whole thing to her editor too, before it had a chance to go public? Even though she had listened to only a brief bit of the recording, and then erased the whole thing in front of Hugo, Kyra was hardly looking forward to owning up to what she now saw as a beginner’s faux pas.
The sound of her own footsteps bounced back from the concrete walls of the station underpass, and every resounding tick of her heels strengthened her resolution to not cut Xavier Wiegers any slack at all in her article. She was champing at the bit to get her piece down on paper in its definitive form. And she already had her title: “Will the real Xavier Wiegers please stand up?”
Translation by Sam Garrett