The novel cure: Distrust of visionaries

Literary prescriptions for modern ailments

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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Visionaries, distrust of

Cure: The Dykemaster by Theodor Storm

As we approach the season of goodwill and its increasingly marginalised Christian message, it is worth considering how we would respond were a visionary to appear in our midst today. Religious beliefs aside, are you the sort to listen with an open mind to someone who makes outlandish claims? Or are you a sceptic, raising at least one eyebrow at anyone with ideas beyond the norm?

Literature is packed to the brim with dreamers and visionaries whose prophesies and warnings are ignored at everyone's peril. A novel that delivers a smart rap over the knuckles for dismissing such types is a fierce little tome called The Dykemaster. Set on the desolate flats of Northern Friesland, it tells the story of a community reliant on man-made dykes to protect them from the ravages of the North Sea. One man – the intense, 'out of the ordinary' Hauke, who is sent by his father to dig the dykes from a young age to 'cure him of his Euclid' – realises that the design of the dykes is faulty, and that it's only a matter of time before a really big storm hits and breaks through.

Hauke is a difficult man, however, and the villagers dislike him; in their superstitious imaginings they associate him with the nightmarish grey figure on horseback that is said to gallop along the beach at dusk. With only his wife remaining steadfast in her belief in him, Hauke's anguished warnings go unheard, drifting out to sea like the plaintive screeches of the gulls.

Religious scepticism is one thing. A blinkered refusal to acknowledge that there may be things in the world beyond your ken is another. Literature is a vital reminder that you have to be a special sort of person to listen when everyone else is turning away. Yes, your visionary may be mad. But maybe he or she just knows something you don't.

'The Novel Cure, An A-Z of Literary Remedies' (Canongate, £17.99);