‘Nova’ is an Ambitious Novel with an Ingenious Storyline
© Sacha de Boer
© Sacha de Boer © Sacha de Boer
First Book

‘Nova’ is an Ambitious Novel with an Ingenious Storyline

In Daniël Samkalden's ambitious debut novel Nova, the three main characters become more involved with one another than they would like. By changing styles, Samkalden's characters remain credible.

Samkalden – a song writer, theatre producer and director, – is widely known in the Netherlands for his relationship with the actress Ingmar (Inge) Schrama, who for many years played a lead role on the popular daily soap Goede tijden, slechte tijden (Good times, bad times), and as the grandson of Ivo Samkalden, who was mayor of Amsterdam in the years 1967-77.

Together with four other writers and comedians, Samkalden created De Elite, both a theatre group and show, aiming to stage more original and daring productions than Dutch audiences were used to. He also travelled the world, writing for newspapers NRC and de Volkskrant, though the book of travel reports he was due to write never appeared.

What he did publish, eventually, was a novel, Nova. Still, echoes of distant journeys, from the African desert to the North-American mountains, have turned these landscapes into characters too.

Spineless charlatan

At the start of the novel we meet Maarten Schrepel, a writer fallen on hard times, who is given a break by his publisher – 60,000 euros for writing the biography of Thomas de Poes, a popular animal rights activist who campaigns to be elected to parliament for the Animal Party. Maarten thinks of De Poes as a spineless charlatan. Yet, sulking, and disgusted by himself for taking on the assignment, he nonetheless sits down to write. The bills must be paid, after all, so he can continue with his real work.

Aside from his love of animals and a lot of swagger, the self-important De Poes also has a drinking problem, however. After a visibly drunk TV appearance on a popular talk show he is compromised by his misbehaviour towards Julie, a young astronomer trying to prove her theory that an electron does not consist of one but two parts – a discovery with far-reaching consequences. At first glance she makes a rather frosty impression, as a coldly rational woman who is not easily impressed, certainly not by the machismo of a frivolous man like De Poes. Behind a nerdy façade, however, she is shown to be warm. It’s just not that easy to break the ice with her.

Samkalden skilfully takes his readers through the web he is spinning of their lives

This is the starting point for a very ambitious novel with an ingenious plot, in which the three main characters become more involved with one another than they would like. Each in their own way, Maarten, Thomas and Julie are trying to be independent, to flee their past and evade their fate. But all three are mere passers-by on this earth, mortals like you and me, shining a light in the darkness only to discover that things are just the way as they have always been.

Samkalden narrates all this in a language which is at times quite expansive and theatrical, as when we hear from De Poes; then again quite bare and dry in the chapters where Julie has the central role. It is this change in styles that lends credibility, just, to Samkalden’s characters, while he skilfully takes his readers through the web he is spinning of their lives.

Daniël Samkalden, Nova, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2018, 286 pp.

Read some excerpts from Nova below, as translated by Paul Vincent.

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