The tiny Belgian village of Wolfheim is galvanised when Victor Hoppe, son of the late GP, returns home from his medical studies in Bonn. Why has the prodigal suddenly returned to his father’s old house? Does he mean to take up his father’s mantle as the local doctor? Why is he so standoffish with the locals? And, most curious of all, what is the story behind the three motherless infant children he brings with him, each with an identical severe cleft palate? In this disturbing modern morality tale, Stefan Brijs tells the story of a modern Prometheus: a brilliant man fatally undermined by his own lack of empathy. By chance, I came to this soon after reading John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, which gave it an even stranger flavour: it felt, at times, like a cross between Frankenstein and The Midwich Cuckoos. But Stefan Brijs’s novel is more disturbing than either of these because it is so plausible, and because there is such an ironic contrast between the godlike dreams of its protagonist and the sheltered world in which he tries to bring them about.
The Angel Maker is the best-known novel by Brijs, a Belgian author who writes in Dutch. Part of its appeal is that it feels very rooted in a specific place: the countryside near Les Trois Bornes, the point where the borders of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany meet. Wolfheim itself, as far as I can see from maps, is fictional; but Les Trois Bornes and Tour Baudouin, where several significant scenes take place, are not; nor is the Calvary Mount, which also plays a key role in the story. These popular attractions hover on the edge of the story: our characters visit them, and we often see coachloads of tourists going through Wolfheim in order to reach them, but the real drama plays out in the streets and homes of this small, close-knit and highly religious community.
Brijs weaves together Victor’s present with his disturbing past. Packed off to an asylum as a young child, purely on account of his own cleft palate and his taciturn nature, Victor comes to understand that he can only rely on himself. Everyone else will let him down: his father; the nuns who run the asylum; his friends; even God. By the time that Victor’s father understands his son’s brilliant mind, it’s too late: the young man’s nature has been warped into a standoffish insularity, centred on a profoundly troubling disconnect between his native faith and his quest for knowledge. To make matters worse, there is a strange confusion between God the Father and the father figures in Victor’s own life. As he begins to make his own path as a biologist and researcher, Victor is determined to equal or even surpass God: to ask the questions that others are too afraid to ask; to undertake the experiments that ethics have forbidden.
When Victor returns to the village with his three infant sons, Charlotte Maenhout offers her services as a nanny. Like all the villagers, she’s intrigued by the three little boys, but where many people feel prurient interest, she feels compassion, and a determination to give these children the happy lives they deserve. For they certainly don’t seem happy at the moment. Withdrawn and unresponsive, the triplets – named Michael, Gabriel and Raphael – have a distant relationship with their father, who is preoccupied with his scientific work, and for whom they are more interesting as specimens than human beings. Charlotte believes that she can enrich their lives but, as she is drawn deeper into the life of this peculiar household, and learns more about the children’s situation, she realises that her new job will be more challenging than she could ever have imagined.
This isn’t an easy book to read, in the sense that Victor is such a troubling, unsettling character (I don’t mean this in a readability sense: the English translation by Hester Velmans is fluid and gripping). Yet, even as I found myself struggling to engage with the characters, the novel raised a variety of interesting questions. Brijs asks us to delve into the clash between science and faith, and the tension between ethics and progress (not for nothing, I’m sure, is the protagonist named Victor: presumably a homage to another fictional scientist who pushed experimentation too far). And, beneath everything, is the theme of fatherhood, in all its variations. Creative, haunting and disturbing.