De ontvoerde Tuin [The abducted Garden] (Lieve Bedeer) 2016
[Novel, self-published, s.l. (Antwerp), 2016, 269 pages]
The cover introduces this historical fiction as ‘a novel about the transport of Jheronimus Bosch’s most beautiful painting, the “Garden of Delights”, to Spain’. The protagonist of the story is the 16-year-old Joris Panhedel, grandson of the painter Gielis Panhedel who lives in Brussels. Gielis was once an assistant in Bosch’s workshop and now, together with his grandson, he has to take care of the Garden of Delights in the palace of William of Orange (William the Silent). When William incurs Philip II’s disgrace because of his protestant sympathies his possessions in Brussels are confiscated and Joris is appointed to accompany the triptych on its journey from Brussels to Spain, where Philip II will offer the painting to his (fourth) wife Anne of Austria as a wedding present.
Together with Joris the reader takes part in this journey. The painting travels from Brussels to Antwerp by boat and from Antwerp to Flushing by ship. Flushing is the harbour from which a convoy sails to Spain with Anne of Austria on board one of the vessels. On the ship carrying the Garden Joris meets a young storeaway (Coppeken) and they become friends. After a heavy storm the ship anchors in Santander. Then follows a difficult journey through the Spanish interior, the final destination being Segovia where Philip II will marry Anne. The Garden is partially transported by cart, partially by mules (in the mountains of the Cantabrian Cordillera), hindered by a number of problems (runaway mules, heavy rainfall, a snowstorm, an attack by wolves and lynxes). Along the way they meet Gerard van Turnhout, a musician who engages Coppeken as a member of his choir. Finally, the Garden safely arrives at Segovia but Joris is very disappointed when the new queen totally rejects the triptych.
Because of this, Philip II gives the painting to Hernando de Toledo, a bastard son of the duke of Alva who was also the leader of the convoy to Spain. Hernando asks Joris to take the triptych to Madrid and offers him a job in his service. But in Segovia Joris has met with Antoon van den Wijngaerde, a topographical draughtsman who works for Philip II and is assisted by the teenage twins Elisendo and Elisenda (brother and sister). Anton and the twins accompany Joris to Madrid where Joris, who has fallen in love with Elisenda, rejects Hernando’s offer: he wants to become a topographical draughtsman.
That this novel is meant ‘for all ages’, as can be read on the back flap, seems somewhat exaggerated. Although its style is very pleasant and fluent the book also has quite a number of rather naive phrases and sentences that are typical of juvenile literature and seem to aim at readers who are between 13 and 16 years old. Some examples of this are: ‘Wonderful the scents in this workshop, how much Joris liked them’ (p. 27), ‘what a lucky dog he was’ (p. 36), ‘and then it turned out that grandpa Gielis had long been expecting this, that clever man’ (p. 49), ‘what a clever girl!’ (p. 77), ‘heavens, that amazing grandpa Gielis!’ (p. 97), ‘what a clever boy this Coppeken was’ (p. 160), and so on. That De ontvoerde Tuin is basically meant for 16-year-old readers is indirectly confirmed by the fact that the protagonist is also 16 and turns 17 after a while and by the coming of age character of the plot. Joris changes from a naive teenager who idolizes the inaccessible (blonde) queen Anne in an almost aggravating and childish way [‘for her he was prepared to sacrifice himself’ (p. 118), ‘whish they took good care of her’ (p. 140), ‘hope she doesn’t suffer from the cold’ (p. 152)] and who hastens to slam the door as soon as he enters a brothel by accident (p. 134) into a young adult who sincerely falls in love with the (dark-haired) Spanish Elisenda and thoroughly becomes aware of the artificial world of the high nobility, only interested in greed and arrogance (p. 212).
Within these dynamics Segovia, where queen Anne utters her dislike of the Garden, seems to be the turning point. ‘There I have left the naivety of my youth, and also some illusions’, Joris (who has meanwhile turned 17) reflects on page 236 and on page 245 he realizes that he is ‘no longer the same’. Eventually, this leads to the moral of the story: ‘He had seen them, the pompous rulers of this world. He had seen them parading through the streets of Segovia. He had never ventured to judge them. “But they are only sinners,” that was what Jheronimus had meant. Joris’s disillusion about the “Garden” would at least serve a purpose: from now on, I will dare to think more independently, he decided’ (p. 217). Within the narratological frame it is perhaps to be regretted that the Haywain triptych and not the Garden of Delights is used to support this change in Joris’s character. The account of the Garden’s transport is regularly interrupted by the memories of grandpa Gielis Panhedel (printed in italics) regarding Bosch and his workshop, first during conversations with Joris and later (during the journey) by means of a notebook, called Priegelboek (Fiddly Book), that he has given to Joris. These intermezzos always deal with the Garden of Delights, but the intermezzo immediately preceding the ‘but they are only sinners’ passage happens to be about the Haywain, more particularly about the ‘prelates, princes and kings’ who follow the haywain and are greedy for the hay, referring to earthly power, gold and wealth (p. 216).
Here we chance upon a narratological problem of this novel. The quite simple style and part of the subject matter (the coming of age aspect) are addressing a young teenage public. The other part of the subject matter is based on the largely hypothetical but still fairly fascinating and even exciting journey of Bosch’s Garden of Delights triptych from Brussels to Madrid in the second half of the sixteenth century. But the problem is that this triptych (particularly the erotic symbolism of its central panel) is not really suitable for a confrontation with youngsters who are approximately 16 years old.
No wonder the novel is continuously pussyfooting around the Garden’s iconography (whereas for a more mature public it would have been nice to elaborate on this aspect). ‘People, monsters, fish-like beings, what were they up to?’ Joris wonders on page 37, but at that moment he is still the naive, childlike Joris, so it stands to reason that he does not get it. And yet, on the next page Joris has God in the left interior panel (actually God the Father and not God the Son as is erroneously being claimed here and also on page 197) think that the ‘flirting’ men and women in the central panel are bound to submit so sin and thus will end up in Hell in the right interior panel (p. 38). But on page 62 the same Joris calls the Garden’s central panel ‘a carefree world’ and ‘a world without suffering, a Paradise’… On page 127 grandpa Gielis, who was once Bosch’s assistant and should know what his master meant with the triptych, wonders whether Adam in the left interior panel and the Treeman in the right interior panel are gazing at each other ‘amidst this chaos of love, voluptuousness, happiness, doom and hell-fire’. Happiness ànd doom? It is also somewhat weird that on page 104 both Gielis and Joris appear to detest violence and executions, a feeling that doesn’t fit in with their appreciation of the Garden, particularly not with the cruel images in the right interior panel.
On page 178 Joris reflects on the blonde women in the central panel: ‘They looked so innocent, but were they? Joris was at a loss. What did Jheronimus mean: was everything about women sinful? No, out of the question, you did not have to end up in hell because you kissed a woman, did you?’ But on page 193 Joris (it is his birthday) reads the following in his grandpa’s notebook: ‘You know that in those times Engelbrecht asked to depict the whole world and its sins in the “Garden”. Of course, the sins of luxury and sensual pleasure as well. How were they going to do that?’ ‘It was a story (…) suitable for a 17-year-old. No, he was by far not the only young man who was dreaming about pretty women’, Joris grins after he has read about young and wild riders turning around a pond of virgins, on which occasion grandpa literally quotes Bosch’s most important pupil (more about him soon): ‘Turning left, turning left. They say it is the cirlce of sin and evil. Is that really so? Well, in that case I could not care less, I find this evil very beautiful!’ When Coppeken sees the Garden for the first time, he exclaims: ‘So many nice things I have never seen in my entire life’ (p. 202), but then again: this is the reaction of a 12-year-old.
Actually, queen Anne (who – make no mistake! – completely rejects the Garden) seems to be the only character in the novel who immediately understands Bosch’s triptych: ‘”Pecados,” Joris heard her whisper, “I see nothing but sins!” Terrified she turned away’ (p. 205). And yet, on the next page Joris claims that she does not understand it at all: ‘She did not get it at all. She did not understand that the “Garden” was everything: earthly, heavenly, pious and sinful, frisky and mystical. All this was the “Garden”’. It is no wonder that after these diverging interpretations the Haywain has to be called from the substitutes’ bench in order to steer the moral of the story in the right direction. A moral that (make no mistake – again) is triggered by the fact that Anne rejects the Garden (a painting that basically conveys a message similar to that of the Haywain, although this is not explicated in this novel), which unmasks her as ‘a stupid bitch’ (p. 206) and as one the ‘pompous rulers of this world’ (p. 217).
The back flap of De ontvoerde Tuin not only mentions that it is a novel for all ages but also that it guarantees ‘a fascinating and enriching reading experience’. Setting aside the objections regarding some narratological weaknesses (by the way, is it really plausible that the Spaniards entrust an apparently valuable and important painting to the care of an inexperienced 16-year-old?), one can admit that this latter claim is certainly true. Those who are more or less familiar with the modern literature about Bosch will undoubtedly be glad to recognize a lot of things. Some of the items that are touched upon: Bosch’s (presumed) journey to Italy (p. 32), the painting that Bosch produced for the main altar of the Dominican church in Brussels (p. 35), the bed for fifty persons at the Brussels Court of Nassau (p. 41/53), the hypotheses that Engelbrecht II of Nassau was the commissioner of the Garden and that his wife Cimburga played a part in this (p. 44), Albrecht Dürer’s visit to the Brussels Court of Nassau (p. 57), Gielis Panhedel who restores the altarpiece of the Confraternity of Our Lady in ’s-Hertogenbosch (p. 70), the assumption that the duke of Alva was jealous of Henry III of Nassau because he did not succeed in marrying Mencia de Mendoza and Henry did (p. 76), the fact that there existed several copies of the Haywain (p. 78), the influence of the art of illumination on Bosch (p. 96), the hypothesis claiming that the Treeman in the Garden’s right interior panel is a self-portrait of Bosch (p. 117) and even the idea presented by Falkenburg 2011 that Adam’s crossed feet in the left interior panel anticipate the nailed feet of Jesus on the cross (p. 127).
Obviously, only those readers who are aware of all these items will also be able to recognize them and for the nonsavvy (young?) reader it will be difficult to decide where the facts end and the hypotheses and fiction begin, but that is the fate of every historical novel. Bedeer introduces historical figures (such as – apart from the widely known noblemen – the assumed Bosch pupil Gielis Panhedel, the Antwerp printer and editor Hieronymus Cock, the draughtsman Anton van den Wijngaerde) as well as characters she has invented herself. The major ones among these are Joris Panhedel and in particular Anton, a crippled but very talented artist who is introduced here as the well-known ‘disciple’ from Bosch literature who was Bosch’s favourite assistant, designing and executing the works of art together with the master. The figure of Adam in the left interior panel is (in this novel) a self-portrait of this Anton, as is also Anthony carried away by his brethren in the left interior panel of the Lisbon St Anthony triptych. Ideas like these are bound to make the story more interesting, although not necessarily more reliable, but this is just another trait of historical fiction and the author should not be blamed for it. Even less so when we are dealing with comical concoctions such as the running gag about the little bottle containing the relic of Christ’s foreskin (elaborated on pages 87 / 91 / 93 / 180 / 203).
Rather weak, though, are the confusing hubble-bubble regarding the two saints Anthony (Anthony of Padua and Anthony Abbot, see pp. 26 / 101 / 169) and the fact that Bosch’s masterpiece is continuously being referred to as the ‘Garden’ triptych and the ‘Garden’, whereas this is nothing more but a tentave title dating from the late nineteenth century and grandpa Gielis should know better. The novel does not offer a solution for this anachronism and it even leads to the somewhat unfortunate title The abducted Garden, reminding the unsuspecting reader rather of some sort of magic garden from a fairy tale than of a Bosch painting, although a sentence on the cover swiftly tries to shed some clarifying light on this matter.
The major asset of this novel is the fact that a coming of age story is intertwined with the transport of a world-famous painting from the Netherlands to Spain. Although it is a historical fact that the Garden of Delights triptych was brought to Spain in the sixteenth century and the transportation route presented in this novel has a high degree of plausibility, in the end this is only a hypothesis based on assumptions. Together with Harry van den Berselaar, Lieve Bedeer has also written a magazine article about this issue (see Van den Berselaar/Bedeer 2015).
[explicit 11th Juli 2016]