Translated from Dutch by Jane Hedley-Prôle
(New York: Other Press, 2019)
I am a fan of historical-fiction. History re-envisioned, a blend of fact and imagination that sometimes leads to a greater truth, a better understanding of the past. Academic texts are accurate, dripping with names and dates. Statistics back up claims and everything is so carefully researched that the pieces easily fit together. But what about the emotion that drives human interaction, and the personality traits that define historical characters and make them relatable? Often times, history neglects the undercurrents that drive the narrative. The facts are important, without them we’d wallow in ignorance, but sometimes to genuinely cut to the crux of an issue, to gain a deeper comprehension of a problem, we need to rely on fictional devices. But what happens when the lines blur and one is unable to discern where fantasy has bled into fact? What happens when a well executed tale usurps reality? Who do we believe when the truth is obscured and the fictional story is told in such a compelling manner it fools even the professionals?
The Republic by Joost de Vries is a stunning satire of history, politics, and academia. Drawn into the first person narrative of Friso de Vos, one quickly empathizes with his dilemma. His quest for legitimacy which he believes has been stolen after the death of his friend and mentor Josip Brik.
Brik was a Hitler expert, who spent more time and energy researching the way in which Hitler is portrayed culturally and in media than the man who terrorized Europe during World War II. According to de Vos:
There was yet another category within Hitler studies, an increasingly popular one, that people like Brik and I belonged to, a category that wasn’t interested in facts, certainly not the ones that had recently come to light. What use is information that nobody possesses? Brik liked to say, What use is knowledge that nobody knows? Nightmare visions that everyone perceives as real are much more significant, much more potent than any mere facts.
It is this idea, this concept of the imagination being more meaningful than reality that drives the novel. Perception is power. Reality can exist on multiple levels and sometimes one needs to break free from the constraints of facts to get at the raw truth.
De Vos is the editor of a Hitler Studies journal based at a university in New York. While following a Hitler story to Chile, de Vos is hospitalized. It is then that Brik falls out of a hotel window in Amsterdam and dies. De Vos should be at the funeral, of that he has no doubt, but his health prevents him from doing so. When he finally returns to the States he is appalled and scandalized to discover that a man name Philip de Vries has upstaged him. (To discover that de Vos’s perceived nemesis shares a surname with the author momentarily took me aback, but ultimately it added to the novel’s intrigue.) In delivering a powerful eulogy at Brik’s funeral, and following it with a series of interviews, he corners Brik’s spotlight. Frustrated, de Vos goes on the offensive. Who is this man who dares to pose not only as Brik’s star student, but as his close friend and mentee, as well?
Determined to meet and confront this de Vries, de Vos agrees to debate him at a well-known conference for Hitler historians in Vienna. The men look alike, and shortly after arriving in Austria de Vos capitalizes on this coincidence. Curious about this mysterious adversary, he decides to impersonate him. The ruse entraps him and he finds himself on a quest of someone else’s design that leads him to a new realization regarding society’s infatuation with Hitler.
In time, De Vos finds the lines of his own existence blurred between what is real and what is not. The consequences of his actions are both funny and detrimental, especially for de Vries who remains unaware of de Vos’ building animosity for much of the novel.
Quirky, yet informative, The Republic is an engaging read. Brik is undeniably a memorable character, one whose thoughts and philosophies will stick with a reader long after they have finished the novel.
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Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in The Conclusion Magazine, Watchung Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The New Ink Review, Ovunque Siamo, Placeholder Magazine, Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It!