The Latecomer by Dimitri Verhulst Portobello Books (2016)
Dimitri Verhulst is a Belgian writer who writes tightly condensed satires (this one is 139 pages) of everyday life. I previously came across him with his novel ‘Christ’s Entry into Brussels’. In his latest work we encounter its anti-hero Désiré, soiling his nappies in the Winterlight home for those suffering from dementia. Only; Désiré, isn’t a victim of a tragic illness but has chosen of his own volition to feign the symptoms of Alzheimers to escape from the restrictions of his exasperating home life.
The humour on display in this compelling story is of a decidedly dark hue. But Verhulst doesn’t make light of the suffering of genuine cases but refers to their poignant fate throughout, particularly, in the case of Rosa, a former object of Désiré’s youthful affections and part of Désiré’s motivation in getting committed to the home. Désiré’s reconnecting with Rosa naturally enough isn’t to have a happy ending but it does offer him some respite from the ministrations of his suffocating wife. Verhulst details Désiré’s former life and is very good at satirising some of the empty rituals that passed for respectability in his middle-class existence.
As the novel progresses, we learn how Désiré assumes the behaviour of an Alzhiemers patient. Previously, something of an intellectual with a penchant for Schubert and Beethoven he gradually deteriorates and appears to be no longer able to care for himself. Verhulst offers a series of vignettes which entertain and amuse because of what we know of Désiré’s simulation, even though we know of the reality of the genuine patients.
Désiré’s eventual fate is to be as absurd as his initial step into life as an imposter but Verhulst seems to ask would we not all be tempted to take a holiday from life when it gets too stultifying? This is a wonderful story from a writer who is as sharp as a tack and hilarious to boot.