February 2009

Drennan Spitzer

fiction

The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs, translated by Hester Velmans

Stefan Brijs’s The Angel Maker is, in some ways, a revisiting of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As in Shelley’s novel, Brijs gives us a central character, also named Victor, who, consumed with his scientific discoveries, seeks to create life and somehow displace God in the process. And yet, for all its similarities to Frankenstein, Brijs’s novel is fresh, interesting, and imminently compelling, and Hester Velmans manages a smooth, readable translation.

The Angel Maker is the story Victor Hoppe, a medical doctor, scientist, and social outcast who simultaneously seeks to secure his place in the annals of science, overcome an abusive upbringing, and clone himself, all while coping with doubts about the ultimate goodness of God. Victor Hoppe, born with a cleft pallet and red hair and therefore assumed to be cursed, has an amazing memory and a disconcerting commitment to his scientific work, coupled with a severe lack of social skills. Although the narrator attributes many of Victor’s positive as well as his off-putting characteristics to Asperger Syndrome, Victor is treated as a pariah for much of his life. As the novel opens, Victor returns to the village of his childhood with three cleft-pallet infants and no wife in tow, and the people of his village are alternately fascinated and horrified by Victor and his family. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Victor’s triplets, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, are anomalies in a number of ways. And Victor’s attempt to overcome his own negligent and even abusive parents seems to be leading him towards another kind of abuse.

The structure of The Angel Maker, although not particularly innovative, makes the novel compelling. The novel, divided into three sections, begins in media res, with the second section narrating earlier events. This structure, far from confusing, pushes us to keep reading, both because we want to find out what will happen and also what has happened to lead to the current state of very strange affairs. Although told in third person, Brijs includes a number of view points, allowing us to see the novel from a variety of perspectives.

Brijs’s novel might be called science-fiction in that it treats a number of ethical questions concerning the cloning of humans. However, although dealing with this theme might immediately suggest a futuristic setting, the novel is set from the 1940s to the 1980s and, thus, is retrogressive in many ways. Although Brijs manages to defy our expectations of a futuristic or even contemporary setting for these questions, he does so in a way the feels neither contrived nor forced. And the narrative, the story of Victor Hoppe and his quest, is much more central than the themes that the novel treats.

In addition to exploring questions related to the cloning of humans, this novel touches on more general questions of ethics in science but also touches on questions about how society treats the disabled and those otherwise perceived as different. Too often, writers ruin the effect of a novel, the enchantment of a good narrative by the attempt to treat issues, particularly the issues that bother contemporary society. Too often, this sort of treatment comes across as forced, contrived, and heavy handed. Brijs, however, manages to avoid this by focusing our attention on the narrative and ultimately leaving us with a sense of equivocation about these big issues.

Even more interesting than the novel’s treatment of questions pertaining to ethics in science is the treatment of God, Christ, Christianity, and the relationship of each to human ideas of good and evil. Victor says that he believes God to be evil because, like Victor’s own father, he causes his Son to suffer. Jesus Christ, however, he believes to be good. Victor in a number of overt ways identifies himself with the suffering Christ. In the process, however, he fails to see the irony that, like his own father and his idea of God, Victor is causing his own children to suffer, ostensibly for the sake of humanity.

Brijs’s novel approaches a number of old questions in a new way. While the novel could easily become trite, predictable, and polemic, Brijs manages the narrative and the characters with such grace that it is a pleasure to read.

The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs, translated by Hester Velmans
Penguin
ISBN: 9780143113096
346 Pages