There is a great deal to be unmasked in the work of W.F. Hermans, the Dutch geologist and writer (1921-1995). Everyone has his own secret agenda which could be fatal for someone else. Some dark mechanism always makes a secret agent of the other. The world is a huge conspiracy against the individual, and paranoia is big business. Nothing and no-one can be trusted, either in the everyday world outside, or in people's private lives.
What did you do now? his mother said to Tim.
I didn't do anything, Tim said. I just said the dinosaur is wrong, that's all.
Michael Crichton Jurassic Park
Literature has always been a rich breeding ground for secret agents, but not so for dinosaurs, and you rarely see the two categories combined. Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park is the well-known exception, but Hermans' novel Nooit meer slapen (Never again to sleep) (1966) is a more surprising example. This novel is unexpectedly 'dino-ish', although explicitly, there is only an oblique reference to Fred Flintstone and his dinosaurs.
Hermans' novel has more literary qualities thanJurassic Park, but it is no match to Crichton's novel when it comes to imaginative power. The burning paranoia possessing the young geologist, Alfred Issendorf, a fretting introvert, keeps him from realizing his ambitions. His obsessional neurosis - the thought of having to die dishonourably, without a major scientific discovery to his name - makes him in fact unsuitable for his work. And certainly for the successful completion of the geological expedition which brings him to Norway some time during the sixties. Issendorf is investigating the origin of the so-called dead-ice holes. A popular theory at that time maintained that these holes were in fact 'pingos', the result of the melting of frozen ground water from the ice age. He rejects this theory as a scientific whim and wants to prove that these holes were caused by the impact of meteorites. His trip through Finnmark, the most northerly region of Norway, turns into a calvary, with nature and cosmic forces conspiring against him. Especially the unearthly atmosphere of the midnight sun makes him paranoid. The nights are too hot, and are alive with clouds of mosquitoes which never allow him a moment's rest. He experiences his mission as a season in the underworld, and sees in everything secret plots against his scientific work. Even his travelling companions are not safe from his suspicious glance.
Exactly how naive can Alfred Issendorf be? His goal in life is the discovery of a meteorite which will bear his name, the Issendorfite. He thinks he will find true happiness in a meteorite of a kind of stone never before found on earth. During his search, his paranoid feelings and insecurity are strengthened by W.F. Hermans. Alfred is Hermans' alter ego, who does not realize how he is being manipulated by this master-plotter. Because, however obsessive he may be in his distrust of the others, he persistently fails to confront the person he should really distrust. Although he feeds on the author's paranoia and is the plaything of one of his, indisputably literary, games, Issendorf, first and foremost, believes himself to be the victim of major conspiracy originating in the Norwegian academic world. He remains blind to Hermans' malicious intentions.
The tone of the book could be that of a variation on the adventure novel. The Finnmark of Alfred's mission is allied to the giant-populated landscape of the Edda, and is governed by the primaeval forces from Fred Flintstone's dinosaur era. But Issendorf does not recognize the signs, at best he sees a parallel to Hergé's Tintin in Tibet. A landscape and world full of ghostly figures and spiritual signs: he sees the monk in the mountains of Tibet reflected in his friend, Arne. This Arne is the personification of the body and soul of Wittgenstein, the philosophical sensation from the sixties, the Buddha of the young urban intellectuals. But, God knows how, Alfred the blunderer eventually drags himself through his adventure and returns home safely to lick his wounds. And Alfred is right about one thing: there is clearly a conspiracy against the meteorite theory. In the atmosphere of a masquerade in which no-one is himself, his work is being thwarted by both the author and his associates in Norway. His own professor, Sibbelee, who had encouraged him to take this trip to the Far North, reveals himself as the Greek Cybele, worshipped in the form of meteorites. Nummedal, the university mastodon whom he calls on first after his arrival, turns out to be the product of paranoid concoctions. His friend Arne talks and behaves as if the world were one-dimensional, and impersonates Wittgenstein. Everything symbolizes something else, nothing is itself. Alfred is amazed by the fjeljo (a bird) producing sounds associated with materials which it does not have at its disposal.
The world is an obsession, the geologist's hallucination, but he does not recognize the message. He wakes up from this hallucination to a bitter-sweet happy ending, when he celebrates his birthday with half a meteorite in each of his cufflinks, a gift from his mother. Arne died in a fatal accident, and the meteorite theory has not been proved.
Nooit meer slapen is the story of a jealous writer who does not give his main character a chance. It is the story of the missed opportunities of a geologist who negotiates a primitive landscape trying to find proof of a meteoritic impact. He scans the landscape for possible holes which could serve as evidence.
Without being aware of this, he is on the track of a truly revolutionary theory, for which he could be awarded the Nobel prize. Although Alfred is aware of the existence of a secret, he cannot put his finger on it. However close he might come to the truth, however intuitively he may have sensed the new ideas, he cannot, or will not, uncover them.
This uncertainty proves to be Alfred's undoing. Although he is only an inch away from afantastic scientific discovery, Hermans does not allow him to formulate it. Because, who among serious geologists would meddle with the dinosaur craze? Who would waste even a moment's thought on the disaster that a single meteorite could have brought upon these huge animals? Of course, Alfred has also heard rumours of a sensational theory of this kind, but this would seem to be too far-fetched, really. On the other hand, should he then have connected the spectacular meteoritic impact with holes in the earth's crust? Is science so impoverished, would you venture into primitive nature for as little as that? Does science have no higher ambitions?
One of Alfred's most depressing thoughts is the fact that modern science has become so impersonal and anonymous. In his conversations with Arne, he keeps harking back to this subject. During an interview, Hermans once fantasized on how differently it could have ended up for Alfred. For example, how he hears that a real meteor has landed, returns to Norway, examines the crater, and writes a fourteen-page scientific article on it, which is subsequently published in the American Geologist, or a similar journal. And then he becomes lecturer at Groningen University, orsomething like that sniggers Hermans. The reader sees Alfred struggling, oblivious of the fact that it is pure jealousy on Hermans' part which dooms his mission to failure. Because Hermans was fully aware that he had never been so close to a subject which could have made him world-famous, both as a writer and as a geologist. Imagine, the Nobel prizes for literature and science, for a single piece of work! But somehow he knew that he would have to leave this honour to someone else, and he did not grant Alfred that honour either. Alfred was sacrificed to Hermans' pride. It is the author himself who conspired against his main character. In one of the most bitter passages in the book, Alfred responds extremely cynically to the geologist Brandel's travel report, which he reads on the aeroplane. Brandel is a former friend from Alfred's university days, who has joined a successful Himalayan expedition. Alfred finds him a spoiled prig, a pampered Westerner who has made sure he is accompanied by famous sherpas. But, however annoying and spoiled this character may be, here is proof that Dutch geology is much more successful than we are led to believe in the novel. Even though the Dutch landscape is said to be unsuitable for this profession, and it presumably follows that Dutch geologists are only second-rate scientists, Hermans knew very well that this expedition had accomplished more than Alfred would ever achieve. Alfred returned home empty-handed, while the Himalayan team brought back no less than eighteen-hundred stones, including some interesting fossils. And more was to follow.
At the time when Hermans was writing his novel, the most unlikely ideas surfaced in the vicinity of Brandel (in reality, the notorious scientist Tom de Booy), which would make an impression in the seventies. One of the most well-known of these ideas was that of Robert Bakker, the driving intellectual force behind the idea that the impact of a meteorite, somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, was responsible for the dinosaurs becoming extinct. After the publication of his ideas, this young scientist soon found his way to Yale University – for him, no lecturer's career in Groningen, as in Hermans' case. His discovery was one of the main sources of inspiration for Michael Crichton's novel, Jurassic Park. A whole generation of young dino-buffs learnt to spell his name; in Steven Spielberg's film we learn how young Tim worships the name 'Bakker'. No other scientific issue could be more popular among children under the age of ten! It is certainly something we can blame Hermans for: throwing dirt at others, while himself evading the perfect idea at the perfect moment. By this lack of courage and imagination, by not daring to consider the ultimate consequences, he has left Alfred empty-handed. If he had been a little braver, he could have produced a truly future-oriented book, which, from both a literary and a geological point of view, could have compared with Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Why did Hermans not allow Alfred the honour of that scientific discovery? Why, in fact, did Alfred so tenaciously hold on to those dead-ice-hole-meteorites, and so persistently refuse to recognize the meteorite which was fatal for the dinos?
If we criticize Hermans for his failure, should we not also give him credit for being right? His text provides plenty of clues that could put Alfred on a different track, but he seems so unwilling to catch on to them. And even the geological and tectonic features suggest a much greater secret than Alfred suspects at first sight.
Therefore, Nooit meer slapen can also be seen as a generous gift from Hermans to Alfred. The whole book is riddled with concealed visual signs of primitive, pre-human, life, which could have led him straight to the dinos. But Alfred did not want to see. Scrub away the first layer and see how man and beast are being sketched and drawn as new, often gruesome, figures. The very first introduction is one of childlike open-mindedness facing a monstrous world. As if it concerned the last remnants of a bygone period, Alfred comes face to face with the half-blind professor Nummedal (four small round mirrors are now being aimed at me) and his blind hall porter (what is left of his ear looks like a misshapen navel...), who together set the tone for an alternative adventure story. This treacherous professor turns out to be a mixture of futuristic and monstrous characteristics. The ski run where he takes Alfred, the huge ship that he looks down upon from a bridge, everything takes on the shape of prehistoric apparitions. No man or beast makes an appearance without us being confronted by a metaphor which, as it were, geologically transposes the world into another epoch. Nothing is what it professes to be. Not the man with the face of a whale, the curious Oftedahl, who probably lives his life as Hvalbiff (whale meat), nor the tourist with her Fred Flintstone
husband. Although these 'geometaphorical' creatures throw Alfred off his mental balance, they are no reason for him to make fundamental revisions to his theory. He is moved when he recalls the virulent pumping of the heart of an animal being cut open alive, but he cannot come to terms with it, cannot get to the bottom of the image. Everywhere he sees failed facelifts, but does not recognize the original features. Decrepit, down-and-out human scientists are the phantoms haunting his mind. Tenaciously and enduringly, the images force themselves upon him. Twice Alfred travels by aeroplane, and both times it is as if he takes his place in a primitive animal, as Jonah did. Even the fjords manifest themselves as voracious figures which seem bent on drumming the suggestion of the dinos into him. So fixed is he on his theory that he completely misses the message that these animal apparitions are trying to convey to him. The landscape into which Alfred ventures lies open to him, like a palimpsest. All he needs to do as a geographer, palaeontologist, or archaeologist, is to seize his chance. But because he cannot believe his eyes, he is bound to fail. Alfred came close to unravelling a secret, but he failed. Was Hermans being unfair, or did Alfred miss his chance? Indeed, the latter seems to be the case, in view of the out-of-time alchemistic undertones in Nooit meer slapen. This is more than just a variation on Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth; countless sentences, paragraphs, whole pages, can be interpreted as alchemistic or palaeontological metaphors. Nature turns out to be the travesty of a large mine where gold lies for the taking. The phenomenon lighting up the sky, which Alfred finally hears and sees on his way back as the sign of the missed meteor impact, comes much too late.
Somewhere in Nooit meer slapen, Hermans refers to the imaginary, symbolic and real stages by which the consciousness of a child develops. These are the reflection of the thoughts of Lacan, the freudian French wiseacre, and they explain how, via mirrors and photography, we come to know ourselves. It is as if here, Hermans comes closest to the discovery of the sensational theory. What would have happened if this paranoid writer-geologist, living in his sadistic universe, had been forcefully confronted with the dinosaur mania, rather than with Lacan's psychology?
This question will never be answered. But it is certain that such a novel would have missed the tragedy of Nooit meer slapen.
translation OLIVIER / WYLIE