A splendid reminder of the virtues of the traditional novel, this work tackles the territory of Balzac and Zola, not just in the solidity of its construction and characters, but in its readiness to tackle corruption in church and state.
In this novel by a Flemish writer (translated by Brian Doyle), Albert Savelkoul, the public prosecutor of Antwerp, is a powerful, well-heeled citizen. He has made his way up the ladder partly through marriage to an aristocratic and deeply religious woman.
He has a mistress, the lovely Louise, which does not prevent him from lusting after a Polish maid. He also has a Swiss bank account provided by Albanian heroin dealers, whose damning substance mysteriously turns out to be talcum powder under Albert's skilful management of the prosecution.
So far, so very unlovable, but greedy, lustful Albert comes to represent natural humanity; an Everyman. When he falls into the clutches of Opus Dei, shown as a sinister, bullying organisation hell-bent on blackmail, the reader cannot help supporting the fallible human being against the calculated manipulations of a sadistic priesthood.
Savelkoul enjoys the traditional pleasures of the haute bourgeoisie but has a generous affection for his Polish maid, whose devotion is the only sincere relationship in his life. For Albert's sexual and financial corruption have led him into fearsome entanglements. Amandine, his wife, falls under the influence of Opus Dei and is maltreated by a particularly twisted representative of the clergy.
Armed with proof of Albert's misdeeds, Opus Dei demands that his sons' inheritances, plus anything else they can lay their hands on, should be made over to them. At the same time, they gain access to Albert's Swiss account. The Gnomes of Zurich, it turns out, are no match for such an organisation.
The web of entrapment surrounding our poor fleshly prosecutor is complete. Will he and his Polish lover escape to safety in Scotland? In a tellingly human moment, he promises to be nice to everyone if he makes it. Everyman, indeed!
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