'Redder' by Hannes Dedeurwaerder: Escape From a Sectarian Community
With Redder (Saviour), Hannes Dedeurwaerder has written a semi-autobiographical debut novel about his upbringing in the Pentecostal community. An unusual glimpse into an otherwise closed world.
When Redder was published, Hannes Dedeurwaerder conceded that in his debut novel, which is set in a Pentecostal church community, not everything was drawn from his own experiences. But the events he describes in the book did happen. His writing is more alive than ever, and the portrayal of what it is like to grow up in a strict religious community is realistic and confronting.
Hannes Dedeurwaerder © James Arthur
Redder is the story of Samuel Stroobant, a 19-year-old boy who grows up in a strict religious family, members of the Pentecostal Church. That religion almost determines his life completely, although Samuel struggles with his faith. He finally wants to see proof of God, and experience that event itself, and he is not content with the endless stream of testimonies about the miracles He performs. After all, Samuel had sacrificed an entire school year to his faith because he had declined to answer questions on evolution during his biology exam.
In fact, Samuel and his religious peers are convinced that evolution as it is preached in school is blind and without purpose, it could never lead to the complex organisms that we are. The only logical, even scientific alternative is that creation is the idea of a Man with a Plan. The 14th-century philosopher William of Ockham, not coincidentally a Franciscan friar, is brought into play to bolster this argument, his famous razor theory conveniently summarised as 'the least complex explanation is always the most probable'.
He finally wants to see proof of God, and he is not content with the endless stream of testimonies about the miracles He performs
Like the rest of his community, Samuel gets his information and arguments from pamphlets such as Behold the Man, and he has been shaped by literature such as Your Soul for some Pocket Money, which reveals how demonic the world of rock’n’roll is. A pretty shocking reading experience for a music lover like Samuel, but he does believe it.
And yet, his schoolmate Arvid, a true rebel, slowly tugs at Samuel’s convictions, planting seeds of doubt, asking questions that Samuel can sometimes only answer with a mournful shrug at the ignorance of his friend. Or is it the other way around? Samuel experiences this doubt as cancer, an incurable disease, and withdraws more and more into the nature reserve where he also has a weekend job in the canteen. Then again there is Molly, a girl from church for whom he has feelings, and there is the explicit wish of the church leaders that he should go to Amsterdam to prepare for his calling as a missionary.
Two things are very compelling about this book. In a beautiful way, Dedeurwaerder shows what it is like to grow up in such a faith, a sectarian community that usually remains closed to outsiders. In his mind, doubt and fanaticism alternate, the doubt continuing to resound inside, the fanaticism spreading to the outside world. At times the two seem to reinforce each other, as if Samuel needs both to keep convincing himself.
Dedeurwaerder illustrates how you can end up in a thought spiral, and how devilishly difficult it is to get out
That struggle is skilfully described, and impressively, Dedeurwaerder tells his story without rancour or resentment. He also shows how much love and solidarity there is within such a community, and how close the bond is between the faithful, people who see each other as one big family. Of course, this makes it all the more difficult to leave, so this coming-of-age is not very straightforward.
It’s also not that hard to see parallels with similar fanatics, whether this be other faith communities, anti-vaxxers, or ideological extremists on the edges of the political spectrum. Dedeurwaerder illustrates how you can end up in a thought spiral, looking for evidence for something you already believe, and how devilishly difficult it is to get out.
The merit of the book therefore lies largely there. From a literary standpoint, this is perhaps not the most remarkable book of the year, it is often just a bit too simplistic. In his writing, Dedeurwaerder also allows himself a few too many puns, although there are some very nice finds.
Yet this debut stands out by its sparkle and insight. The title already gives it away: Redder is full of references to lyrics by Ghent singer and writer Luc De Vos from the Dutch-language alternative rock band Gorki (with a song ‘De redder’, 'The Saviour'), not coincidentally a man with a melancholic penchant for the warmth that he once found in faith. This intertextuality makes the reading experience even more fascinating, as does Samuel Stroobant’s search for the true meaning of life.
Excerpt of ‘Redder’, as translated by Elisabeth Salverda
Lonesome in the 'un’-magic box
I couldn’t shake off Molly’s poor opinion of my musical project with the children. The fact that I missed Eel Dreams and that I enjoyed my solo performance in the Bietstok café so much – even if it was for a three-person audience – did that not show I was performing below my level with the Little Saviours? That I could expect more from myself and no longer have to hide my musical talent away?
Maybe I should keep urging Danny to play the songs he had promised during a Sunday service. But since I suspected that Molly wouldn’t show up at Living Water again, I let go of that idea and decided to focus on Jump/Start, our church festival during the last weekend of the summer holiday. That surely gave me enough time to convince Molly to come. What’s more, I would be in front of an audience of four hundred people, more than twice as many as in the church. What a powerful exclamation mark for my nineteen years in Living Water my performance would be, before I left for Amsterdam to talk about Jesus. The only problem was Danny again, who, as founder and organiser of Jump/Start, had never conceded an inch from the schedule since the start, defending the same routine by fire and sword. That festival was his love child and he had raised it alone. Why would I interfere with my guitar?
After the Sunday service, I took my chance – what did I have to lose? – and approached Danny as casually
as possible. He stood leaning against the table; having a rare moment to himself, he stirred his coffee, lost in thought. His face lit up when he saw me and he held his palm open to me for a low five, which I gave enthusiastically despite my loathing for the gesture. Anything that could help...
'Did Molly not feel like coming today?' I asked cheerfully.
'She’s hurting too much again,' he said, shaking his head. 'Last night she even woke up the other girls with her screams of pain. Two guides had to calm her down by lying on her.'
'Is it that bad?'
'Nobody knows what’s up with her right now. This morning things were slightly better, but the Sunday service was never on the cards for her. She is too worn out.'
'I don’t get it,' I sighed. 'Haven’t we already prayed several times? Why does God make her suffer so much?'
'If I had all the answers, Samuel... I take comfort in the thought that He knows what He is doing.'
I nodded humbly. 'By the way, can I discuss something with you?' I dared ask after a short silence.
At those words, his face curled into a smile. He poured the rest of the coffee down his throat, wiped his moustache with the napkin, and slid off the table after a nod to my mother. 'Honestly, I’ve been waiting for this for a while. But not here. Come with me.'
Not understanding what he was referring to, I followed Danny to the door behind the table, which led us into the darkened storeroom where the clothes were sorted like we also sometimes did in our bungalow. The hot and stuffy room was stacked to the brim with cardboard boxes ready for the autumn transports which my mother had organised for our sister church in Romania.
My stomach turned all fluffy as I entered the space, and I felt the same joy as when I slurped the skin off warm milk or heard small pieces of glass going clickety-clack up the hose of the vacuum cleaner. My childhood was largely defined by the many weekends and Wednesday afternoons I had spent here while my mother folded and sorted the clothes with other women. I made dens out of fabric, climbed as high as possible on the piles of boxes or hid in one of the many nooks. When I didn’t feel like playing, I often crawled into the big empty box at the very back of the room, from where everything sounded much more muffled and where I could sit cross-legged for hours watching particles of dust dancing in the chinks of sunlight in front of me. I wanted to take them home under my arm.
On the outside of the box, someone had written ‘magic box’ in a neat child’s handwriting. In front of that, someone else had written "UN" in red block capitals. Because it sounded so beautiful, I always imagined myself there, the un-magician. Speciality: disappearing without being missed.
Hannes Dedeurwaerder, Redder, Bibliodroom, 2022, 288 pages.