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Dutch geology student Alfred Issendorf makes a wonderfully quixotic journey in this previously untranslated 1966 gem from Hermans (1921–1995), a Dutch novelist who worked in Paris. Alfred sets out for Norway's northernmost region of Finnmark with three other students to try to confirm their professor's dubious hypothesis that regional craters resulted from meteor impact rather than Ice Age glaciers. Insecure, exhausted, doubting his career choice and barely up to the physical rigor of trekking through the Arctic wilderness, Alfred begins to imagine that everyone—his companions and their mentors—is plotting against him. But he is determined to make his mark, mostly to compensate for the loss of his biologist father who fell into a mountain chasm when Alfred was six. The story takes an unexpected turn when Alfred loses his compass—literally—and reveals surprising reserves of fortitude and cunning. For all his anxiety and irony, he also proves a sympathetic narrator, particularly in the development of his relationship with Arne, one of his companions, who is in many ways his opposite. In this moving tragicomedy, Alfred's self-knowledge is achieved at great cost and offers him little hope. Hermans's portrayal of Alfred's existential transformation is deep and crystalline. (May)
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Dutch novelist Hermans' 1966 book is literate, naturally developed, cannily paced, tonally even--an exceptionally well crafted novel. Why did it languish untranslated for 40 years? Because of unsympathetic characters, perhaps? Alfred Issendorf is a PhD candidate aiming to guarantee a cum laude degree by proving his mentor professor's pet theory about meteorite impacts in Norway's Finnmark region. Inadequately prepared, Alfred is disappointed by his professor's Norwegian contacts (this is mordant high-comic material), antipathetic to his companion field researchers except for the maudlin Arne, and maddeningly full of himself though he lacks all self-confidence. Stubborn, to boot, he badly bruises a leg in a fall due to his own inattention, and later he willfully takes off in the wrong direction and gets lost. He meets no tragic end, and when he finds one, he is minimally affected. He is also supremely unlovable, tolerable only because he's young and hence may outgrow his self-absorption. He's unpleasant, and so are the other characters. Finally, they're wryly funny, and in that lies the novel's brilliance. Ray Olson
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