Bavo Claes. Kraai. Amsterdam/Antwerp. Atlas. 1997.191 pages.
At forty-nine, one of the best-known Flemish television faces, the news anchorman Bavo Claes, has published his first novel, Kraai (Crow, but with several other connotations, including the English "cry"), already the recipient of several awards. It is an unexpected novel, and very different from almost all others recently published in Dutch.
Although the narrator of the novel has the same profession as the author, Claes explicitly wants his text to be read as not autobiographical. The journalistic background, however, allows for the many news-related parentheses. Kraai is situated during the Falklands and Chernobyl crises more than a decade ago and is about the narrator and his dying father, about a son who is reluctantly realizing that he is not very sad about his father's death.
In the first part of the novel the son visits his father in hospital, a kind of daily duty, but always postpones telling his father that he has been diagnosed with cancer and is to die very soon. In fact, he has little contact at all with his father. He only sits beside the latter's bed, recalling fragments of his youth and childhood and the early death of his mother, and also fantasizing about a young nurse. The continually interfering international situation provides a mirroring background of death and disease. The affair the journalist has with the nurse is constantly being interrupted by newsflashes and is never experienced as something creative. One cannot escape death.
A year after his father's death, the son breaks down. Health problems, most of them imagined and reading-related, problems at work, memories of his relationship with the nurse, the painstaking re-creation of his own and his father's past while sorting out his father's things--all these make him difficult to live with, and he simply cannot stand the pressure of work and family any longer.
Although death and difficult communication in things that really matter remain important until the final lines, a mere thematic summary could never do justice to the novel. Language and style are overwhelmingly important here, and one simply has to immerse oneself in them.
Kraai is a monument of language and style. Archaic, little-used, and even dialect words, chosen for their musicality, create a specific atmosphere, especially when combined with swift and unexpected switches from one plot line to another. Apart from the news items (and the usually implicit criticism on how serious matters are dealt with in journalism), Claes quotes from pop songs, old medical magazines, and liturgical materials. His storytelling is highly associative, with a narrator moving quickly through time and space in a series of often alienating images: a chain of voices, sometimes complaining, then developing into a cry that rises from the ocean of a swelling canon; the description of a Purcell recital that is in a peculiar way highly symbolic and adapted to Claes's novel itself.
Bavo Claes, who may indeed have been writing and rewriting Kraai since the time of the Falklands war and the Chernobyl blast, has zealously created a personal literary idiom, vaguely reminiscent of Ivo Michiels's sometimes "musical" language. He has forced language and story into a text that is at the same time very complex and ambivalent, and utterly readable.