Wild Woman by Jeroen Olyslaegers
Wild Woman is a book that covers the time of the printing press and the thought revolution that followed in Antwerp and Amsterdam in the 1500s. The story is told by an innkeeper called Beer, who runs an inn in both cities, which allows the author to recount the goings-on of the people who lived in this era – a time of anarchy and unhygienic conditions, where people spit on the floor and in the fire before shaking hands for a bargain or exchange of power.
A visit to a bathhouse means visiting a kind of brothel. The language of the time is vulgar and actions very physical with Wild Man described as a descendant of the Vikings, who robbed and set fire to everything. The time is one of abject poverty, of death of women in childbirth and of illnesses that caused hallucinations like those found in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, with a drink that poisoned everything. The church is presented as a kingdom of lies. There’s a sense of powerlessness yet at the same time a flourishing entrepreneurial spirit.
Antwerp shipowners sail to the north and other regions to trade in spices, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, silver, copper and wood. They transport cloth and wine and trade with Navarre and Castile, while Jews and the Portuguese trade in diamonds. Books from England were traded and the markets never stopped. The greedy, miserly King Philip II does not want a city, but a revenue.
There is betrayal, envy among printers. There is no free speech; you always have to watch your words so as not to end up at the stake or in court. Treachery and recklessness call for revenge. Those who are blessed with money forget who helped them; they become lazy, greedy and want everything only for themselves and do not see and respect what they are part of. Different religions arise. The Lutherans do business. The Calvinists despise money. The Huguenots do not like butter but like olive oil. The Anabaptists are honest, poor, outlaws and against the government.
The country jewels were the events of the day, a carnival-like procession full of jesters with a Wild Man announcing the coming of spring. The festival is repeated annually, like a ritual.
Fishermen catch walruses for their teeth and poach them. Their desire for wealth makes them crazy.
The Wild Woman from the North and her child are ambivalent figures, curiously strange. Together with the Wild Man, they flee the sick and crazy city.
This is the image of the time that author Jeroen Olyslaegers paints, in an era that runs parallel with the paintings of Breughel and Bosch. It’s interesting for understanding our national character, and the writer succeeds in representing those turbulent times. The many conflicts in the novel replace the normal tension often found in other books and demand perseverance from the reader.
While the language is vulgar and hard to enjoy, it provides a daring imitation of what it must have sounded like in those days.