Review: The Unsaid by Richard de Nooy

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Title: The Unsaid
Author: Richard de Nooy
Publisher: Jacana Media
ISBN: 978-1-4314-0916-7

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“The unholy offspring of The Killing Fields and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The Unsaid is the last novel in Richard de Nooy’s trilogy, but all three books can be read separately. His first novel, Six Fang Marks & a Tetanus Shot (2007) was awarded with the University of Johannesburg Prize for Best First Book. In his second novel, The Big Stick (2011), De Nooy lived up to the expectations created by his first. His third novel is a successful continuation of the high standards he has set in his first two books.

De Nooy grew up in South Africa and has lived in The Netherlands for the past 25 years. All three books are published in Dutch as well, as they are partly set in The Netherlands. The Unsaid is situated mainly in the Dutch Institute for Forensic Observation. Journalist Remco de Heer or, as he calls himself in certain situations, Deo, is being observed to establish his degree of criminal accountability after he attacked some fellow journalists in a bar. Curious is a finger in a jar which he carried with him while he was arrested.

The novel starts and ends with a letter of De Heer’s brother Ysbrand in between which different texts are alternated. Reports about life in the Institute, a first-person narrative written by Remco de Heer, are alternated with observation reports about the observee; transcriptions of conversations, mainly with the psychologist Eugène Hauptfleisch; the reports by Hauptfleisch; a report by Hauptfleisch’s supervisor and short stories written by De Heer. This could easily turn out to be a messy quagmire of fragments. Instead, with the help of different fonts and the use of different styles, matching each narrator, De Nooy composed a well-thought-through puzzle in which every fragment is carefully chosen and is conducive to the greater story the novel tells.

In his reports about life in the Institute De Heer presents himself as a highly intelligent journalist who is traumatised by his experiences in war zones and calls himself a “magnet to misfortune”. He fortunately manages a dark sense of humour as he describes his fellow observees: “I cannot deny that there are guys in here who make Charles Manson look like Mr Bean with a beard” (40). The reader tends to feel sorry for De Heer, but it isn’t long before he reveals himself as an unreliable narrator: “Don’t take my word for it, I may be lying” (40). Soon it turns out that, besides the official reports by the psychologists, the day by day observation reports about him are written by himself. In general his tone gets more and more grim and one wonders more and more about his mental state. He turns Hauptfleisch easily around his finger:

Deo: […] That’s what the voices tell me.
EH: What voices?
Deo: The ones I just made up. It was a joke, Eugène, a weak joke. (109)

The unveiling of De Heer’s madness is built up in such a subtle way that it provides the reader with a growing uncomfortable feeling, strengthened by the parts where he approaches the reader. This is already announced in the motto of the book: “You have long been inside my head. And now I am inside yours.” One doesn’t want to be withdrawn in the depraved thinking of such a person as De Heer, but because of his seemingly logical thinking and openness The Unsaid is a page turner at the same time. De Nooy plays with the reader’s attraction and disgust and succeeds very well in using the fragments in such a way that they build op the tension by slowly revealing more and more about De Heer’s past.

The short stories written by De Heer are, inter alia, set in Bosnia and South Africa and contain not much more than cruelty. At the same time they’re about crimes and violence committed by ordinary people, which causes a degree of identification, or at least understanding. All the stories are told retrospectively by the narrators, from death.

At first De Heer’s self-chosen nickname Deo (the Dutch surname De Heer also means “the Lord”) places him in a unique position among his fellow observees. However, after a while the other observees get irritated by his placing himself above all others and everyone outside the group, causing a threatening atmosphere. De Heer comes up with conspiracy theories about the CIA and apartheid secret agents. At the end he escapes his putative enemies by committing suicide and the mystery of the finger in the jar gets solved.

Or not.

The front cover of the book says, “The unholy offspring of The Killing Fields and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It strikes one as a bit sloppy that in the book De Heer’s brother Ysbrand writes in his first letter: “You left us a blurb for the back cover: ‘The wayward son of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Killing Fields …’” (1). Despite this flaw the tagline rings true: those two stories indeed meet in The Unsaid. Set in the Dutch literary tradition one could also say WF Hermans meets Arnon Grunberg in The Unsaid. The usual themes of the traumatising experiences of war, and of society’s outcasts whose lives slowly evolve into a violent outburst of Grunberg, meets the enigmatic theme of Hermans’s novel The Darkroom of Domacles (1958). The latter caused a polemic that lasted for years about what really happened to the character Osewoudt and where the narrator has been withholding the truth. De Nooy achieves a similar enigmatic mystery: especially after finishing the book one starts wondering where De Heer told the truth and what really happened.

Although The Unsaid lacks the rare brilliance of Hermans’s and Grunberg’s books, De Nooy outdoes a lot of contemporary writers. The Unsaid is a powerful book in which everything makes sense, the humour is black where it has to be black and the characters are perfect in their imperfection. As forecast in the motto, De Heer breaks out of the Institute and straight into your thoughts to stay there for days.


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