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De vriend van Vesalius.

Roel Richelieu van Londersele. Amsterdam/Antwerp. Atlas. 1997. 158 pages. ISBN 90-254-2182-2.

Roel Richelieu van Londersele's second novel is a broadly brushed fresco of the sixteenth century, a century of humanism and barbarity, of science and knowledge, as well as of illiteracy and ignorance. Dries van Malder, the main character in De vriend van Vesalius (Vesalius's Friend), is a man who lived in the shadow of the very great figures of his age. He grew up in the company of the boy who would become the world-famous Andreas Vesalius, and he even helped the young scientist steal a corpse from the gallows for research - a moment he would never forget.

Dries becomes a surgeon and a cook; he often visits other towns and earns a decent living doing what (often conceited) doctors tell him to do, or preparing exquisite dishes for the wealthy. One day he is called to help a very ill woman, Riet. She could help herself, but in order to prevent people from calling her a witch, she prefers not to heal herself. It is the beginning of an extraordinary relationship. Riet is brutal and tender, yet at the same time a very free spirit, provocative when possible, a danger to herself in an age when women are supposed to be subordinate and obedient. Riet and Dries continue their individual lives; they do not see each other every day; but they are nevertheless a couple, and they care very much about each other.

We follow Dries when he visits a famous alchemist and while he prepares the meals for a large, wealthy company. We trail along as he accompanies Riet to the famous Antwerp botanist Peter van Coudenberghe. Over his shoulder we read the letters Vesalius sends him, and together with him we anticipate Riet's misfortune when she is playing clairvoyant or helping people who are in conflict with the authorities. One of her principles is to help needy people, for she finds it terrible that the world always turns in the same direction.

Vesalius dies in October 1564, and a messenger reports to Dries the passing of his friend and recounts the last months in the life of the great humanist, who had been forced to leave Spain but never reached the place to which he was exiled. Dries comes to terms with the loss of his friend, but another incident threatens to ruin his life. One winter day he is summoned to attend a jailed witch, and he reluctantly enters the cell. In the naked, shaven-headed woman whom he finds under some straw he recognizes Riet. No escape is possible. She has confessed everything the Inquisition wanted and is to die at the stake.

In De vriend van Vesalius ignorance and superstition are opposed to Vesalius's belief in the unlimited progress of science. Exceptional people escape the violence and brutality of their time, only to be overtaken by a most cruel fate. Vesalius dies on a hostile island. The proto-feminist Riet becomes a victim of a society that both fears and envies gifted people and nonconformist behavior. The garden full of wonderful plants and flowers from the Far East, Africa, and the Americas of which the famous Antwerp chemist and botanist Peter van Coudenberghe was so proud is completely destroyed during the 1585 religious riots and the ensuing siege of the city.

Above all, De vriend van Vesalius is a colorful and tasteful evocation of sixteenth-century daily life, introducing historical characters within a fictional situation. It is a kind of "distant mirror" that actually succeeds in making the reader smell, feel, and taste the past, an approach fully reminiscent of centuries-old storytelling.

Ludo Stynen Antwerp
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Author:Stynen, Ludo
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
Words:610
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