Maarten ‘t Hart – A Flight Of Curlews

I have to admit I don’t read many novels in my native language, Dutch, but of course I used to do so mainly before I had depleted my local library and moved on to works that were not translated yet. I do still have some Dutch books on my shelves that have been lying there for me to pick them up one day. One of those is A Flight Of Curlews (1978) by Maarten ‘t Hart, one of the few of his novels that have been translated into English.

It is not a long or overly complex novel except for psychological nature of the plot. An accidental encounter causes turmoil to the stabile internal life of a man, bringing back many memories during the days that follow. The memories at first look seemingly random. Gradually they start to paint a deep profile of the main protagonist from his early childhood to more recent events.

The main protagonist is not an ordinary man. Though highly intelligent he copes with many sociological failures and a number of tics. He is a typical autistic nerd that have become very familiar today but as this novel was written in the seventies such a stereotype did not exist yet. Perhaps at the time it came out it might have looked to be about a rather disturbing person.

The author writes a very easy prose and his writing is fairly simple but very vivid, which makes it enjoyable and accessible. The story is very focused as it is narrated from only one viewpoint. The great problem however is the lack of a good plot. A large part, perhaps at least a third of the novel consists of flashbacks. These do not last very long and the story returns to the main plot but this does not last longer than the flashback until another one follows. This overload of flashbacks, while interesting, does hamper the main plot a lot which sees very little progress until about halfway the story. To me it was a relief that the flashbacks stopped and the actual story continued. Peculiarly enough the majority of the plot revolves about a different series of events than much of the first half seems to develop towards. It leads to a somewhat disappointed ending although with regard to the flashbacks the reader understands the main protagonist well enough that it was not unlikely to have turned out this way. One could say it is a realistic result. Things like this happen in real life as well.

There is much to like about A Flight Of Curlews. It is well written and the main protagonist can be seen as interesting as we explore his being and how he interacts with other people. The overload of flashbacks and the lack of a good plot damage it enough for it not to be a entirely satisfactory read. The novel is considered to be one of his most popular and best works but I don’t regret that I have not picked it up earlier.

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