In a Dutch village in about 1930, a tearaway youth, Rob, attends a recital organised by his father the mayor, and given by a visiting organist whose name – Albert Schweitzer – means nothing to him.
Rob has distinguished himself through daredevil stunts, such as climbing onto the roof of a moving train, and through his defiance of his father, a former officer in the East Indies whom he nevertheless loves. To his surprise, the philanthropist Schweitzer's accounts of Africa appeal to something very deep in him.
Not that Rob turns suddenly virtuous. A wild episode with a girl and a motorbike crowns his career of social unacceptability. So he leaves the Netherlands, not for philanthropic activity but for South Africa, and opportunities for enterprise. He does not succeed, but prefers the course of adventure over the demands of humdrum existence.
Besides, for all his hard man's lifestyle – whoring, dog-races, casino-going – he feels the pains inherent in existence. The exquisitely done story in this novel's first chapter, of his friendship with the black African boy who assists him down a goldmine, tells us this all-important truth. Rob's life, not merely in Africa but in the hellish theatre of the Second World War, amounts to a distorted reflection of Schweitzer's.
He shares the latter's disregard for convention. We watch him endure capture by the Japanese, followed by the appalling slavery of the Burma Road. During his most extreme tests, "the past was a dark, shapeless sludge. The future was unthinkable ... Only the moment mattered." His earlier Dutch years haunt him and he finds a friend, Guus, with whom he can share them. But Guus and he are tragically separated.
Translated by Sam Garrett, this is a novel of extraordinary power and moral beauty, executed with a poet's intricate artistry. Between its opening and closing departures, we proceed according to some deep psychic logic, ever further into a life not well-lived but, even so, strangely exemplary.