How far is a single man willing to push scientific advancement in order to better God? Victor Hoppe is willing to go far, very far. This is the central theme of the book by Stefan Brijs, soon to be translated in English. In English, it will be called `The Angel Maker’, in Dutch ‘De engelenmaker’. The book chronicles the life of Victor Hoppe, a man who the reader learns about when he moves into an old house in the little village of Wolfheim.
The book consists of three parts, all narrating the story from different perspectives. The first part of the book tells the middle part of the life of Victor Hoppe from the perspective of the inhabitants of Wolfheim. These village people only see the strange man coming, and with him he has three little children. The man is a doctor, but never shows himself, nor his children. It takes almost a year before the villagers see the three children for the first time. When asked what happened to the mother of his children, the doctor responded “The children do not have a mother, they never had“. Their names are Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael.
In the second part of the book, the reader learns more about the main character. In beautifully mixed sections, alternating between the youth and the academic career of Victor Hoppe, the motives of his work become clear, as well as the manner in which he attempts to carry out these motives. We learn about his personality and morality, which are heavily influenced by the syndrom of Asperger. Due to this syndrom of Asperger he views the world as consisting only `good’ or `evil’, not being able to perceive anything in between. The way he was brought up by the nuns learned him to perceive Jezus as good, for he did good to the people, and God as evil for he abandoned his son. Victor was abandoned by his own father and left alone with the nuns, where he spent almost the first five years of his life. In his academic career, Victor emerged to be a brilliant medical student and a promising embryologist, receives high levels of acclaim for being able to clone mice. He is the first capable of cloning mammals. However, he does not take into account the scientific mores, not willing to replicate his experiments. When an investigation is started, for he is discredited for fraud, he does not even wait for the outcomes of the investigation, but simply leaves. He continues his work on his own, showing that he does not care about academic life, but only about the results. He clearly has some higher goals in life than academic esteem.
The apotheosis of all that has been built up in the life of Victor Hoppe is detailed in the third section of the book. While in the previous section much has become clear about the three sons, here it becomes clear how small their role and impact actually were in the life of Victor. They weren’t much more than a (failed) step in reaching his goal: bettering God. Finally he has the means to fulfill his own plans, but time is running out. But the little time he needs is granted to him by the changed attitude of the villagers around him. Having gradually won the hearts and minds of the villagers of Wolfheim, Victor is now protected by them when people from his own history, unknown to the villagers, try to reach him. This shows in a brilliant way how people can make the wrong decisions for the right reasons. Additionally, the final decisions Victor Hoppe makes show how complete madness and strict rationality do not exclude each other.
Not willing to give away the plot of the book, I have purposedly left out some of the most interesting parts of the story. But it is clear how the three parts of the book are structured and how they add to each other. All characters have their own specific role to play, and all are described in more than enough detail to understand their actions, without resulting in overly long elaborations that do not add to the story.
But before I continue describing all the beauty and splendor of this book, I do have basically two issues with the way this book is set up. The first issue is not so much as real critique, but has more to do with my personal preferences. The book clearly deals with ethical questions regarding fertility issues, and thereby the relationship between morality, scientific progress, and religious doctrine. However, to me this interplay has not been worked out sufficiently broad to engage in a debate on these issues. Rather, it is clear that the main character has developed his own (special) morality and thereby the ethical issues are reduced to our moral stand on what he does, thereby not dealing with more general issues. Additionally, the church and it’s doctrine seem to play a large role in the plot of the book, which opens up possibilities for interesting reflections on how the church deals with technological change and the new moral issues this leads to. But actually, it is only the way Victor Hoppe is influenced by the church that forms a motive for his deeds. Again, although this makes a highly interesting motive and a fascinating book, I still have the feeling that a slightly different perspective could have been more interesting. To me, at least.
My second and more important criticism on this book is its high level of predictability. Because Stefan Brijs takes so much care that his readers are able to understand the motives of the main character, thus resulting in repetition, it is clear in advance what the outcome of these motives will be. The book has I think three main plots, two of which were clear to me 100 or even 200 pages in advance. For a book that is clearly written to excite the reader, this is too early. The third and most important plot (not the third in the order of the narrative) is not clear that long in advance, but when it happens, the motives and historical background are clear immediately as well. I think this would have been a better book when there would have been more room for puzzling out what happened in the mind of Victor Hoppe.
Nevertheless, I do think that Stefan Brijs has written an excellent novel. It is very well structured and written ((I read the Dutch version, the original language it was written in)) , and the characters are developed beautifully. And that is the most important: indeed it intends to be more of a character novel that one focussed on moral issues. Especially the character of Victor Hoppe is detailed very well, with both the complex history he has had and the clarity of his own, almost binary, morality of a world only consisting of good and bad. The debates on technological advancement, religious doctrine, and morality, although to my opinion not worked out completely satisfactory, form an interesting setting for the development of this troubled character.
Indeed, these issues are important and will perhaps be more so in the near future. Generally, Stefan Brijs appears to have a detailed knowledge on the technicalities that are dealth with in his book, resulting in a sense of realism to the reader.
The Angel Maker has been received very well in the Netherlands and in Flanders, winning several important literary prices. The translational rights have already been sold to many countries, such as for instance the U.K. and the U.S.A., Greece, Russia, and Turkey. I’m looking forward how this book will be received in this countries, especially regarding the religious issues that are dealth with in the book.