Dimitri Verhulst – The Latecomer

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Désiré Cordier is 74 and has pretty much had it with life it seems. He reflects on his fondness for alcohol and the effect it has had on his marriage. This has become a real chore and he seems fed up with the nagging from his wife and the quality of life he has now. He plots a scheme to make people think he is losing his mind so he can bury himself away from the world by tucking himself into a home.

The book starts with him talking about having to regularly soil his nappies at night so he can keep up the act and not be found out. He’s been playing the role for months at this stage and it’s hard not to think of the people that are really going through this experience when reading The Latecomer. Here, in Winterlight Home for the Elderly, Désiré worries about his sleeping pills knocking him out so much he’ll be exposed but he awakes in his own excrement. He says that people here mean well but they all tend to shout or talk very loud when speaking to him.

The life with his wife certainly seems to have been an unhappy one. She comes across quite petty to say the least, with Désiré highlighting that she once abandoned him as he farted in bed. They were downsizing their house, which would save his back from all the repair work that needed to be done but it meant they would be living in a more confined space. Their sex life was rather ropey and they had taken to sleeping in separate rooms.

The book is excellent in showing how people deal with this situation. Désiré reckons from an early stage that people will blame his condition on all kinds of things, such as not eating enough fish or not reading newspapers. He’s ripped off by people he’s known for years and young people laugh at him in the street during a particularly extravagant set piece when he’s trying to convince the world of a particular personal state of mind. The cruelty of the world is on display here and we can have some empathy with the reasons why Désiré ultimately wants to withdraw from it.

The Latecomer is full of humour, with witty commentary on everyday things like alarms and more dramatically moments like his treatment of the religious objects his wife has surrounded him with. There’s joy when the memory choiris discussed and the book is full of wit and heart. This is contrasted beautifully with sadness about what some people are suffering through and the neglect they experience. The book is full of light and shade and things take a dark turn when we see the impact this charade has on his daughter. The Latecomer is a mighty little book that says a lot about society and our place in it.

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