Zeeland, or Elective Concurrences
NewSouth Books, $25 (cloth)
"Zeeland," the Britannica tells us, is a "maritime provincie, southwestern Netherlands. It occupies the delta lands of the Scheldt (Schelde) and Maas (Meuse) rivers….Its history has been marked by a permanent struggle against the sea, indicated by its name, meaning 'sea land,' and by its heraldic device, Luctor et emergo ('I struggle and emerge')." The motto is symbolically apt for this new novel, an account of struggle and emergence from struggle, by Dutch-born American writer Hans Koning. (The real Zeeland province does play a part in Zeeland, but not until the end.)
The story, on the face of it, is simple: Two men, both named Beauchamp, are on the run across occupied France, both heading for the safety of Spain. Sounds like the plot of an old-fashioned war thriller, you might say, and you would be right. But here's the trick, and the hinge on which Koning hangs his coincidences (the "elective concurrences" of the title): The first Beauchamp, a printer named Michel, is fleeing Bismarck's Prussians and the forces of the re-established French government in 1871, subsequent to the crushing of the Commune—that Red Revolution avant la lettre in which Michel has taken an active part. The second Beauchamp is Michel's American grandson Michael, a dashing volunteer serviceman in the RAF, on the run from Hitler's Nazis and their Vichy quislings in 1941.
Each Beauchamp is searching for freedom. Each is also, in a sense, searching for redemption: Michel in pursuit of his missing wife, who, believing him to be dead, leaves Paris shortly after the Commune (and whose subsequent emigration to America sets in motion the events that make their grandson an American); and Michael in 1941, in taking on not only the Nazis but also Marie de Jongh, a Dutch-Jewish resistance fighter who is at first more of a burden than a blessing. In Marie, Michael finds love, too, and emerges from his struggles—with the Germans, with fate, with his own conscience—as a man of true principle, redeemed by his adherence to love and duty. Michael's gain thus counterbalances Michel's loss.
Yet there's another parallel in Zeeland beyond the two Beauchamp stories: that between the idealistic Beauchamps and Hans Koning himself. Koning, né Koningsberger, escaped the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands in 1940 by fleeing to Britain where, like Michael Beauchamp, he took the King's Shilling as a volunteer member of the British Army. In 1951, after a stint in Indonesia, he emigrated to the United States and embarked on a globe-trotting career as a novelist, journalist, and author of what The New York Times has described as "personal travel-writing in the grand tradition." An American citizen by the 1960s, he took a vociferous public stand against the Vietnam War and has never ceased to proclaim his beliefs, which tend toward what might be called populist humanism. It's an admirable story, but one surmises that Koning's dogged idealism has ruffled more than a few feathers along the way. The man doesn't compromise easily, perhaps not at all. When he expresses his view of a writer's duty, for instance, there's a youthful intransigence about his stand.
You don't inquire what is selling those days. You don't worry about what editors or reviewers may like or not like….You don't read chapters to friends or to a long-suffering husband or wife in order to get an independent judgment. Your own judgment is independent. You don't accept any suggested change except where you made a factual or grammatical mistake. My motto has been through all those years: Not a comma.
Given the all-or-nothing quality of this position, it's easy to imagine its chilly reception in the publishing world. This no doubt explains why, in spite of Koning's considerable output (Zeeland is his fourteenth novel) and his credentials as a writer and correspondent for such publications as The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly,Zeeland is being published by NewSouth Books, a small Alabama-based press to whom all praise is due for having the audacity to transcend regionalism and keep a fine author in print.
Koning, now seventy-seven, has long seen life as a kind of mission whose goal is both to expose oppression and dishonesty, and to set the record straight on the details—about daily life in Europe during World War II, for instance. As he remarked in a 1998 Atlantic Monthly interview:
I finally decided that there weren't that many people around anymore who genuinely knew what it felt like to be under German occupation. The way Hollywood was treating it was ridiculous, and even French movies weren't doing it well. So I thought it would be worthwhile to show people how it really had been.
Koning is alluding here to one of his earlier novels, DeWitt's War, a story of German-occupied Holland, but he might just as well be talking about the 1940s sections of Zeeland. Both novels evoke the brutality of occupation through mundane details: the ausweisen(identity cards), the ersatz coffee, the coal-burning taxis, the conversations about food and rationing, the constant low-grade apprehension, the sudden charge of fear, and, in the case of France specifically, the everyday drabness so alien to a nation renowned for its style. Koning evokes an atmosphere reminiscent of Alan Furst's novels of the same period, or Simenon's early Inspector Maigret series. This is the shocked and humbled France of the Occupation years, where the need for subterfuge and concealment runs very deep. Here, for instance, Michael and Marie are trying to camouflage themselves as natives:
Next to their café terrace was a baker. Marie turned out to have three hundred francs, and they got two baguettes of bread without coupons for five francs. They went to a second-hand clothes shop of which there were many in those days, Michael stuffing chunks of bread in his mouth as they went along. Marie bought an old peasant woman's black dress but it made her look more like a high school girl going to a party than like a farm woman. Michael got a dark blue blouse such as farmers and mechanics wore, and still wear, in France.
I can't vouch for how many Vichy francs a baguette cost, with or without coupons, but I'd be willing to wager Koning has it right. In the 1871 segments, too, he manages to evoke a palpably recognizable France:
"We'll be back tomorrow morning. And if we find that you have warned off this nephew, we'll arrest you in his place. So you better watch it, you asshole." That was the government agent, Jules, calling me that.
At which juncture Koning interjects the following somewhat pedantic but entirely accurate authorial observation: "(What the detective actually will have said is, Vieux con, old cunt, which is the precise equivalent of our modern 'asshole.')" Indeed. And that government flunkey's modern-day incarnation would say exactly the same thing. Plus ça change…
But it isn't just everyday life Koning describes so well. He scrutinizes the fallibility of human nature with equal clarity, as when Michael and Marie cross a Vichy-manned checkpoint.
The officer had a ghost of a smile for all this vivacity or possibly he liked the touch of cruelty with which Michael pushed the girl's face up at him, and he turned to the next person, a man who was already searching his pockets with a puzzled frown, or a fake-puzzled frown.
It takes a piercing eye to note the possibility of the officer liking that "touch of cruelty" and the applicant's "fake-puzzled frown." It's a description worthy of the French Naturalists: This passage gives off the sickly-sweet scent of raw human nature that rises from the writing of Maupassant. The devil is truly in these details, through which the world of Michael Beauchamp's 1941 comes vividly to life with 1871 looming in the middle distance like a giant oak tree half-hidden in the fog. But the earlier story suddenly comes into sharper focus at a crucial point further along in Michael's travels. Having barely made it across the the Pyrenees to a monastery in Spain with the wounded Marie, he stumbles upon evidence of his grandfather Michel's earlier sojourn at the same monastery. He thereby discovers a connection across time that saves Marie's life (and possibly his own) and clears up a long-standing family mystery.
Word has it that NewSouth plans to publish, or re-publish, most of Koning's work, and Zeeland is a good place to start. Except for a few meandering authorial digressions, the novel maintains a cracking pace from start to finish. The characters and their settings linger like a vivid dream. It's quite an accomplishment that in a scant 250 pages Koning manages to make the different strands—the fugal development of the two Beauchamp stories, the war's fearsome backdrop, the heart-rending losses, Michael's redemption—mesh harmoniously. It's a feat of economy and precision.