Joost de Vries’ The Republic


The Republic by Joost de Vries is a comedy of manners about a life in letters and an essay on the burdens of history-but that isn’t as pretentious as it sounds-because it has such a good laugh while mulling them over. The Republic is intellect plus beer, or perhaps better, how about champagne in Vienna?

Hitler jokes. How about a joke about Sherlock Holmes researchers being divided into two contending schools? One school devotes itself to a close study of Arthur Conan Doyle, wanting to know, I imagine, what he ate for breakfast. The other school of Sherlock studies operates as if Doyle didn’t exist and treats Holmes as a historical character whose biography is subject to extensive research.

As the scholars of The Republic delve into Hitler studies, the specialized branches of research sprout increasingly weird. How about a specialty in Hitlerian pornography, or the sub-trend of Chilean naming of their sons “Hitler”, and how about a trip to Chile to interview them? Or a study of a fashion in Hitler moustaches?

We don’t ask to be born, and when we are, we’re thrown into several millennia of history for which we are to be made responsible. It’s responsibility imposed by chance. At least that’s the situation if you are a good European, and this is a superbly European novel. Perhaps Americans, who as Joost points out, are in calling code 01, “the country of countries” would care less.

Friso deVos is editor-in-chief of The Sleepwalker, a leading journal of Hitler studies. But this is a novel with a charismatic core, and that core is Josip Brik, the real article, a genius. He’s the sort of torrential mind fucker who hosts those BBC specials, perhaps standing in an antique lake bed explaining the destiny of the universe to you while you are having afternoon tea. Brik and Friso, are about the same age, young Dutch logic choppers and intellectual firebrands, and they are BF’s-or are they?

Have you ever been best friend of “the talent”? It can be a shaky perch. In the prologue, on the eve of an “End of History” conference in Vienna, Brik is killed in a freak accident when he leans out of a hotel window and its frame gives way.

In the aftermath of the ritual memorializing of the great man, Friso finds himself usurped as chief of the entourage by Brik’s “favorite graduate student”, Philip de Vries, who ends up delivering Brik’s eulogy when Friso is laid up with an obscure infection contracted in Chile, where he went at Brik’s urging to interview “Hitlers”. The plot of The Republic is as dense and conflicted as an article about Heidegger might be.

Philip makes the rounds of interview shows explaining “Brik” to the public with as much insight as it takes to look up a Wikipedia article. Friso usurped.

Friso’s response? Usurp the usurper! (See Wagner’s Parsifal: Redeem the Redeemer! only this is its opposite.) In Vienna for the End of History conference, Friso is mistaken for Philip by some attendees with fascist ulterior motives. Friso and Philip so resemble each other (as well as the author!) that they could almost be doppelgangers. Friso plays along and becomes his rival Philip, the callow grad student. It’s assassination by impersonation. Friso will be the Philip de Vries pretender, behave like a boor, and shaft his rival’s reputation.

The set-piece of working the room at the conference cocktail party at the Schloss Schonbrunn in Vienna, while the portraits of the Hapsburgs stare down at you, is both funny and appalling, as a radical group provokes a riot by attempting to revive the Nazi salute on stage, shouting that history is irrelevant in the 21st century. Vienna is “Hitler central” in this novel. He tried and failed twice to get admitted to the Vienna School of Fine Arts. The novel opines that maybe he would have been happier as an artist, as he originally intended.

An epilogue confirms the humanist core of the novel which has endured a bashing. Find out if Friso can regain his bearings with his longtime love, Pippa, and find his real self in the alienating context of our politics. The Republic by Joost de Vries is the second novel translated from the Dutch that I have read, the first being The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch, which I also recommend. They are both without compromise in their brilliance.