If you’re one of those who has been mesmerized by the problematic complexities of the still-unfolding Whittier octuplets saga, then “The Angel Maker” might be just the novel for you.
Stefan Brijs, a 39-year-old former secondary schoolteacher, is Belgian literature’s rising star. “The Angel Maker,” his fourth novel, was a bestseller there and sold an astonishing 80,000 copies in neighboring Holland. (Contemporary Dutch and the Flemish in which Brijs writes are barely divided dialects of the same tongue.) This book, which flavors the author’s previous forays into magic realism with a strong dose of the Gothic, explores a world of science gone amok in a society whose religion -- in this case, the conservative traditional Catholicism of small-town Flanders -- offers no consolation.
Victor Hoppe returns after an absence of decades to his home village of Wolfheim and brings with him triplet sons, whom he is at pains to shield from local scrutiny. The boys are so identical -- right down to the cleft palate that also disfigured their father as a boy -- that even he needs colored bracelets to tell them apart. They are called by the names of three archangels (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael), an intimation of their father’s godlike role in their conception. They also are far from normal, possessed of huge heads (from which the hair quickly falls) and the faces of old men.
As Victor gradually takes up the role of village physician that his own father once occupied, we learn in narrative flashback that he had not been away practicing medicine but was working as a cutting-edge researcher at a German university, where he conducted unauthorized human cloning experiments of which his “sons” are a product. Along the way, Brijs skillfully sets out Victor’s own tragic history. He has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition usually regarded as a high-functioning form of autism. He lacks empathy, is socially awkward because he cannot read others’ nonverbal communication, is obsessively attentive and has a tone-deaf pedantry when dealing with others. The Viennese pediatrician who first identified the condition called his patients “little professors.” As a child, Victor was sent by his own hideously unfeeling father first to a home for the “feeble-minded” run by the Poor Clare nuns and, later, to a Christian Brothers boarding school. From that experience, he has internalized a photographic recollection of Scripture and liturgical practices -- particularly those surrounding the Passion -- and a belief that God the creator is cruel and unfeeling.
Without spoiling the narrative’s engrossing drive to tragic conclusion, suffice to say that unorthodox science and unorthodox faith conjoin in an echo of both the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Enthusiastic Belgian critics call “The Angel Maker” a “page turner,” and it remains so in English. However, one suspects that certain settings and devices in the plot are meant to be allusive in ways mainly accessible to Dutch-speaking readers, as in the repeated -- and highly significant -- appearance of the Vaalserberg, the highest point in the Netherlands and the place where that country, Belgium and Germany meet. In fact, Wolfheim, the small ancestral village to which Victor returns with his tragic offspring (one is tempted to write “unholy,” but not even the most misbegotten child can be that), is in the tiny, deeply traditional, German-speaking corner of Belgium that is in the Vaalserberg’s shadow in several senses. There are obvious associations with Calvary in this narrative, but one suspects the author’s intentions are more layered. Flemish writers, even in this modern incarnation, tend to be deeply conscious of their cultural past, and one of Brijs’ previous books is a collection of essays built around pilgrimages to the graves of dead Flemish writers.
It is that obvious historical consciousness that raises a somewhat troubling question about the religious attitude with which Brijs has imbued his main character. It’s one of the narrative’s most thought-provoking conceits: Victor hates God, whom he equates with judgment and retribution, but loves Jesus, whom he identifies with compassion and goodness. He instructs his sons’ nanny that she is to teach about the second person of the Trinity but never the first. In the context of “The Angel Maker,” it’s easy enough to see how Victor conflates God with his own unfeeling and removed father, a physician of arctic frigidity, and identifies himself with the suffering, self-sacrificing son.
Still, in the context of his country’s history and literature -- one with which Brijs appears deeply conversant -- it’s hard not to leap backward to the period between the wars when a variation of this particular dichotomy -- the authoritarian, vengeful Old Testament God versus the compassionate New Testament savior -- was used by Belgium’s right-wing Catholic clerics and intellectuals as a pretext to construct a “permissible” theological anti-Semitism as opposed to the rising tide of purely racialist bigotry coming from the rising German fascist movement. It was, as history tragically demonstrated, a distinction without a difference. Collaboration with Hitlerism was general throughout occupied Belgium following 1939 as was anti-Semitism. Flemish-speaking volunteers filled the ranks of an elite SS unit, and Walloon (that is, Francophone) intellectuals like the late Paul de Man filled the pages of collaborationist periodicals with racialist diatribes.
Perhaps this is one of the things Brijs had in mind when he made his protagonist a man deaf to nuance and deprived him of empathy, but one suspects not.
“The Angel Maker” is an alternately fascinating and repellent novel. In part, the latter characteristic is a consequence of the fact that the major protagonists ultimately are unsympathetic. Certainly the triplets’ nanny is a reasonably humane character, as -- to a somewhat lesser extent -- is the Christian Brother who encourages the young Victor in his intellectual talents. Beyond that, it’s hard to find somebody for whom to root here. That’s why the author’s decision to impose Asperger’s syndrome on his protagonist is a perplexing one. Somebody born with what amounts to an empathy deficit and a tendency toward obsessive activity can hardly be held culpable for the sort of monstrously heedless science Victor Hoppe pursues -- to his own destruction and the torment of so many others.
Yet most of the real-world dilemmas confronted by science -- and particularly medical and biological researchers -- involve good men and women in full command of their senses and choices weighing the consequences of novel actions undertaken for the advance of knowledge and the alleviation of suffering. Ambition and acclaim are the seductions, certainly, but the harder issues are the old ones of means and ends.
Now those are dilemmas -- and one of the remarkable things about the ongoing revolution in the fields of genetics and cellular biology is how consciously and forthrightly the vast majority of the top researchers have engaged them. (The cautionary example of many atomic scientists’ postwar agonies is something that seems to have imprinted itself on the scientific DNA.)
Reason and faith
To this reader’s eye, Brijs seems to propose an alternate point of view -- a notion that scientific progress itself is a blind force navigating the world and society without reference to any moral compass. Making Victor the embodiment of that with his Asperger’s not only deprives him of the complexities of ordinary human choice but also renders him a merely symbolic character and stacks the deck in the argument over whether biological science should do anything it theoretically can do. Similarly, by emptying the religious current that runs so strongly through this novel of anything but traditional folk piety, Brijs seems to leave no place for the Western creeds’ long history of moral reasoning.
The author sets Hoppe’s village of Wolfheim next to the ancient German cathedral city of Aachen, where -- as far back as the time of Charlemagne -- the theologian and philosopher John Scotus Erigena argued that faith and reason never could conflict and that, when they appeared to do so, reason ought to prevail. Today, we revere Aquinas and Maimonides for their insistence that religion and reason could and should be reconciled.
Brijs posits a world in which no such reconciliation is desired, let alone possible. “The Angel Maker” is a fascinating work of fiction, but -- at the end of the day -- whoever doubted that irrational science and irrational religion would produce anything but a tragic mess?