When I saw this novel tucked away in a local charity shop, I pounced immediately. How could I resist a story about the Ark so soon after ferreting deep into the history of its legend? Originally published in Dutch in 2001 (the author is Flemish), it has been translated into English by John Nieuwenhuizen and takes us into a strange and foreign world of fishermen and nomads, boat-builders and prophets. And, at the heart of the tale, is the rumour of a great boat being built in the middle of a desert by a crazy old man, and the young woman who travels with her family to answer the call for workers.
Re Jana’s father is a master boat-builder, his skills honed by a life among the marshes and reeds. And yet he turns away from these familiar waters and journeys inland, far to the east, with his daughter and his disabled wife, guided by the nomadic tracker Alem and his little boy Put. As the waters rise, encroaching on their homes and fishing grounds, Re Jana’s mother has developed a desperate desire to move away from the sea. Deprived of speech and movement (it seems she has suffered a huge stroke), she is dragged on a litter by her devoted husband and daughter towards the unknown. A hard slog through scrubland, wilderness and desert brings them to a remarkable sight: a vast shipyard miles from any ocean, where teams of workers toil to create a vast boat. Behind this madman’s project is the enigmatic Builder, who rarely emerges from his red tent on the hillside, and who works through his three sons, Shem, Japheth and Ham.
It looks as if Re Jana’s father has found the ideal job. His wife need not fear the rising waters and he can earn a good wage, as none of the other workers have his expertise in caulking and waterproofing woodwork. But, as he starts to work on this ship, he begins hearing things that don’t make sense. What is the purpose of this outsized vessel? What is all this talk of the righteous being saved? Is it a great sacrificial altar? Or a form of salvation? Why are flocks of animals gathering on the surrounding hillsides? And how – or by whom – are the righteous to be selected?
While her father labours on the ship, Re Jana busies herself with the traditional work of women: finding good, pure water to supply her family. She has a gift for water: the spring she finds is clearer and fresher than any other, although she refuses to divulge its source to any of the other envious women. Yet she has another gift: her people are very particular about cleanliness, and she is able to wash, groom and oil the body in a way that’s alien to the Builder and his sons. Soon this skill brings her close to Ham, the youngest of the sons, who suggests a way that Re Jana might be able to make herself indispensable. But this fragile new existence is threatened when Re Jana and her father learn more about the purpose of the Ark – and who is to be allowed on board.
This is a Biblical novel in some senses – the Flood occurs in Biblical terms, with the deluge lasting forty days, and the very well-behaved animals (seven pairs of clean beasts; two of the unclean: anyone who’s read Finkel’s book will be nodding at this point and saying, ‘Aha!’). There is an implication that the disaster and its cessation have been caused by some divine power. And yet. And yet. Provoost doesn’t shy away from questioning Noah’s morality nor that of his sons and their wives. Her self-proclaimed ‘elect’ gather a vast company of workers to make their Ark, allowing them to believe that they will all be saved; one of the most heartbreaking scenes comes as the waters rise, as people desperately batter on the doors and children drown within inches of salvation. There is something unpleasant and isolationist about this ‘righteous’ family, who tuck themselves away having deceived all those who actually did the work. Ham, Shem and Japheth are no better than they should be, with wandering eyes and violent outbreaks.
Provoost considers not only the psychological impact of building and boarding the Ark, and the desperation to be saved, but also the struggle of survival once it’s launched. When does hope turn to faith, to despair? She convincingly evokes the cramped spaces and the struggle for resources. There is very little humour here, although I found some in her decision to give only one kind of animal a decent cameo role – the dodo. There’s something inherently amusing about the dodo, and by that point in the book I needed all the light-heartedness I could get.
It’s an odd book: dour and yet powerful, suggesting a convincingly archaic model of human society. I’m not sure how much I would have liked it if I hadn’t spent the last few days immersed in the Ark legend, because those parallels were consistently at the back of my mind as I read. I can best explain it as a book of browns and greys. Does that make sense? Books sometimes have colours in the mind. This one is definitely monochrome, full of pitch and mud and rain and timber, with that red tent on the hill offering the only real splash of colour. And I also found Re Jana’s narration strangely dispassionate and stilted, although this could be deliberate (to emphasise her conceptual difference from the ‘elect’) or simply the result of the translation. I don’t think I’ll be reading it again, but it was a striking fictional parallel to Finkel’s work.