Translation of de Volkskrant review of Het puttertje
A new novel by Donna Tartt after eleven years
By Hans Bouman
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The new Donna Tartt novel is a stylistically dashing Bildungsroman. It deals with art fraud, but more importantly with the solace art can offer us. The Dutch title, Het puttertje, refers to the eponymous painting by Carel Fabritius.
Donna Tartt takes her time to write her books. When her follow-up novel, The Little Friend, finally appeared, ten years after her successful debut The Secret History (1992), New York Magazine tauntingly calculated the writer’s output at an average 47 words daily.
The good news: over the past eleven years Tartt managed to raise that average to 79 words. That’s why Het puttertje, to be published this Monday – a month before the English-language original, The Goldfinch – is 925 pages long.
The novel takes off in Amsterdam. It’s Christmas time, and 27-year old protagonist Theo Decker is lying on his bed in a hotel room, sick as a dog, trembling with fever (we recognize the ‘writer’s hotel’ Ambassade, mentioned by Tartt in her acknowledgements). It’s evident that an unspecified dramatic event has happened shortly before.
After seeing an apparition of his mother in a feverish dream, Theo’s memory takes us back fourteen years. He’s visiting the exhibition ‘Northern masterpieces of the Golden Age’ in the Metropolitan Museum, together with his mother, a former art history student.
There, his mother takes him to what she considers to be the absolute highlight of the exhibition: ‘Het puttertje’, a small, seemingly plain painting of a goldfinch. ‘Fabritius is making clear something that he discovered all on his own, that no painter in the world knew before him – not even Rembrandt.’
The mother doesn’t explain her intriguing remark any further. She does elaborate, though, on the fact that Fabritius died in the same year in which he painted ‘Het puttertje’, when a powder magazine exploded in Delft, where he lived.
Shortly after, when his mother has gone to see a Rembrandt painting in another part of the museum, there is a deafening boom: a bombing, we find out later on. A misunderstanding amidst all the chaos and panic leads to Theo removing ‘Het puttertje’ from the wall and – with no malicious intent – putting it in his bag. He then flees the scene of the accident.
It takes a while before it becomes clear that Theo’s mother has died in the assault. His father has departed a year earlier, destination unknown, and so, at first, the wealthy parents of a former school pal take him in their care. After a while, Theo’s father and his new girlfriend come to collect him, and Theo moves from New York to Las Vegas, where Decker sr. is making a living with card games, gambling, and a number of shady businesses.
Tartt spends almost two hundred pages describing Theo’s time in Las Vegas, which makes for one of the most exhilarating and entertaining parts of the novel. Her description of life in the ‘hot mineral emptiness’ of the desert city is convincing, especially of the areas away from the hotels and casinos on The Strip. No glitter and glamour in this ‘different’ Vegas, just the prosaic and often marginal existence of fortune seekers, outcasts, and hedonists.
There, Theo befriends Boris, originally from Ukraine, but a global citizen as a result of his alcoholic, violent father’s work. The energetic, intrepid Boris is a great character, just like Theo’s shifty dad.
Without any caring parents, Theo and Boris turn into street urchins, using ever more alcohol and drugs, making a living mainly by shoplifting.
Through several occurrences, Theo finally ends up in New York again. Without anybody knowing, he has kept the famous painting by Fabritius the entire time. This will cause him severe trouble later on.
Only after two thirds of the novel the plot moves to ‘Het puttertje’ again. Theo is contacted by shady characters, mysterious deals are made, there’s a threat of violence.
De real strength of Het puttertje is not its plot. Some plot twists feel contrived, coincidence plays a bigger part than one would wish for, with credibility becoming strained sometimes. And then there’s a lot of sidetracking.
Compensating this is the beautiful, often dashing style. Venomously, Theo calls the friend he’s living with ‘a computer program that mimics human response’ and ‘a planet without an atmosphere’, and in December, the sun casts ‘a low, weak, purgatorial light like a stage effect in some German opera’.
The true heart of the novel consists of the intriguing reflections concerning the eponymous painting. Even more importantly, Tartt seems to have integrated the views of her characters on ‘Het puttertje’ in the overall structure of the book in a very sophisticated way.
One of the fascinating things about ‘Het puttertje’ is how true to nature the chained goldfinch seems to be, from a distance. On closer inspection, however, the painting ‘falls apart into brushstrokes. Abstract, unearthly.’
Fabritius did not paint with ‘obsessive exactitude’ (the way colleagues like Claesz and Van Hoogstraten supposedly worked), but instead painted a bird using just a few bold brushstrokes. This makes for ‘a different and much deeper sort of beauty altogether. The thing and yet not the thing.’
This idea – that two seemingly contrasting things – ‘abstract’ and ‘true to nature’, ‘the thing’ and ‘not the thing’ can exist simultaneously, depending on the vantage point, the distance – is found again in an argument on ‘good’ and ‘evil’ made by Boris by the end of the book, and again in a retrospective by Theo, on the very last pages.
Theo, the narrator, also offers us two perspectives. Seen from the first – a close-up of his daily business – he’s an unpleasant protagonist. From that perspective, this is a Bildungsroman, driven by a story about art fraud. But when Theo gets contemplative – when he takes his distance – he turns out to be an intriguing thinker. In those passages, he talks about ‘the polychrome edge between truth and untruth’, ‘the magic point where every idea and its opposite are equally true’: the point, he thinks, where art and magic dwell.
And that art, that magic, surpasses death. The embodiment of this concept is Fabritius’ painting, a painting which Tartt probably considers one of the greatest works of art in history, like several of her characters do as well.
Het puttertje is a novel that changes it’s pace throughout: some parts are easy reading, in others, the author asks for concentration and patience. A rich book, and an enduring one, mainly as an impressive contemplation on sadness and loss. And on the crucial, timeless role of art therein.
Translated from the English by Sjaak de Jong, Paul van der Lecq and Arjaan van Nimwegen
De Bezige Bij: 925 pages: E 24,90