The Portrait by Willem Jan Otten

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Reviewed by Helen Parry

Not having looked, not really, not with eyes that can see. That was what his fate came down to. Having accepted the job, solemnly – Yes, really, I’ll bring him to life, I’ll save, I’ll save … But what had he known about it, about what it takes to be up to that task? Who are we if we look but do not see?

The narrator of this novel is a piece of canvas. Not any old piece of canvas, you understand, but an Extra Fine Quadruple Universal Primed: it doesn’t give itself airs, but it knows that it ‘cost a fortune’ and is destined to fulfil some special purpose. And it is unusually large. It has been purchased by the painter Felix Vincent, but it’s too big for his regular commissions, portraits, painted from the life. Vincent, whom the canvas calls ‘Creator’, is ‘without a doubt the most famous and best-paid portrait painter of his generation’, but while his detailed portraits are popular with the public, they are derided by critics: ‘he paints oh-so skilfully, but he has no style of his own.’ Creator resents this:

People think I only record what’s there, he says, like a tiny paintbrush with a camera attached. But in reality they get to see something they don’t see.

The canvas’s fate is not to be a pietà (a picture of the Virgin Mary cradling her dead son Jesus), as Creator initially intends, but to be a special and unusual commission for the Netherlands’ wealthiest man, Valery Specht: a full-length portrait of Specht’s dead adopted son, Singer, painted from a collection of videos and photographs and Specht’s memories. Specht has a strange air of desperation:

I know, Specht said. You say yourself in Palazzo: If it’s not from life, it’s from nothing. And that is exactly what I am about to ask. Paint my son. Bring him to life. Forget he’s dead. […] Believe me, he said, every word sounding more and more whispered. You’ll be saving a life.

Thus this monument to a dead child is a sort of pietà after all, and through it the boy is brought back to life. Of course, the money is good, the whole scenario intriguing … Creator accepts. Yet at the opening of the novel, the canvas is awaiting its destruction by fire. What has happened? How did Singer die? Why does Creator choose to paint the boy naked? Why does Specht never collect the picture? How can we see what we don’t see? The story twists and turns to the very end, playing on our expectations, asking us how much we really see anything, how much is just ourselves, our preconceptions, reflected back at us. It considers life and death, love and sex, innocence and betrayal, beauty and deformity.

Seeing and being seen are fundamentally important to one’s identity, one’s sense of existence. When nobody looks at the canvas, it begins to wonder whether it is still there, and of course it feels rejected. But it wants to see, as well as be seen. Creator says that the difficulty with painting Singer is that ‘he doesn’t look back’, there’s no reciprocity in the gaze. He remembers that one of his worst paintings was his portrait of a blind woman, who couldn’t look back at him:

She didn’t realise I was searching for something, she wasn’t trying to hide anything, she couldn’t see how I was looking at her – and that’s why I, in turn, didn’t actually see anything. Nothing particularly paintable, I mean.

Seeing is a creative act, and The Portrait is also concerned with other aspects of creation, artistic and familial (the original Dutch title is Specht en zoon, ‘Specht and Son’, which brings this to the foreground). The canvas loves Creator, even when neglected or abused by him, as a child loves its parent:

If you, like me, come into the world white and completely blank, with nothing on you at all, you are totally dependent on what they make of you.

It craves Creator’s gaze. Specht, meanwhile, longs for the picture of Singer but stipulates that Creator show it to nobody; he wants to be the only viewer, sole creator of Singer’s identity and existence. No other version of Singer is permitted. However, the gaze of the viewer, while creative, is also limited by that person’s character and preconceptions. What you are is reflected back to you. Thus Specht, Creator, Creator’s wife Lidewij and Minke, the journalist, all see something different in the picture of the drowsy boy, and if no single pair of eyes can comprehend it, together all these viewpoints begin to show us something more truthful about the viewers and the viewed.

‘Nothing is as difficult as innocence, Specht said. Or as rare. Nothing as scandalous either.’ The painting of a naked boy is innocent, but scandalous too, depending on the eye of the beholder. It is beautiful but its beauty so easily becomes troubling, shadowed by the Creator’s own sense of guilt and broken trust. If the pietà and the redemptive death of Christ offer one way in to understanding this novel, then the Creation and the Fall from the Garden of Eden offer another (alluded to in Creator’s name and in Lidewij’s penchant for apple-green clothing). When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were banished, their life in Eden was over but something new was beginning. At the end of the novel, when Creator has lost his innocence and some of his assurance – arrogance? – will this change his art?

This is Otten’s fourth novel and it has won several prizes, including the Netherlands’ most prestigious literary award, the Libris. It’s a powerful and controlled piece of writing, yet it’s incredibly easy to read and hard to put down once started. There is about it a strong sense of the mysterious – so that even the ending, the timing of which I found slightly contrived, becomes entirely credible, part of a working out of something larger than any of the individuals concerned. It’s a haunting story, told in prose which is spare but allusive, with words constantly setting up echoes with other words, giving the book an extraordinary depth and richness despite its small size. David Colmer and Scribe both deserve praise for bringing Otten to an English-speaking readership, and I do hope that we will be able to read more of his work in the future.

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Helen Parry blogs at A Gallimaufry.

Willem Jan Otten, The Portrait, translated by David Colmer (London: Scribe Publications, 2014), 978-1-92-224753-7, 192 pp, paperback.

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