Magdalena is a book about a woman; more particularly, the author’s mother. The author is Maarten ’t Hart, a famous Dutch author, born in Maassluis in 1944. He was raised in a strongly religious Reformed environment, but lost his faith early in life and became an atheist. He is also a biologist and a lover of classical music.
Unlike Richard Dawkins, Maarten ’t Hart is not given to writing polemical treatises. Many of his works are fragments of memory. Yet he rarely mentioned his mother in other books, because she had asked him not to write about her until her death, which eventually came to pass in 2012.
The author is a subtle painter of portraits. One cannot help feeling a mixture of affection and dismay at many people who feature in Magdalena; most strongly towards the mother herself. Concerned about the well-being of her children (especially the spiritual well-being), but with limited knowledge and interests, and plagued by the recurring delusion that her husband is seeing other women (which leads to frequent bitter tears and recriminations), she is a cathartic character, inspiring pity and fear in equal measure.
The reader is as surprised as the author to discover, after many pages or many years, that young Magdalena shared her bed with one of her father’s servants for multiple years, in utter secrecy but also in complete chastity. Somehow it fits and is quite credible, but not less surprising for that.
The book contains polemical passages against the strict Biblical faith of the author’s youth, sometimes interwoven with the memories. I found it particularly fascinating to read how fourteen-year-old Maarten goes to the harbour to find out how long it takes to get an animal aboard a ship, and then calculates how much time it would have taken to get all two million animal species aboard Noah’s ark – not in order to disprove anything, but out of genuine teenage curiosity. He finds out that the time required amounts to almost three years, which does not correspond to Genesis 7:10, ‘And after seven days the waters of the flood came upon the earth.’
His mother (who seems to have had no sense of humour and even less of the absurd – a defect compensated by her son) used to tell him that he should not trouble his head about the Bible, but simply believe like a child. ‘I am a child,’ Maarten would tell her, ‘but I don’t believe like a child.’ And his mother would reply, ‘It’ll come to you when you’re older, then it will be easier for you to believe like a child.’
That it is possible to interpret the Bible differently is not an idea that occurs anywhere in Magdalena; the ‘take it or leave it’ mentality is too strong. [Edit: except perhaps for a passing encounter with a female Protestant preacher, who however offers little of substance.] Catholics are briefly mentioned twice and associated with child abuse both times – for instance in this passage (clunky translation mine):
There I stood, on that deathly silent square next to the train station. The bell of the Great Church was tolling, the clock of the Immanuel Church was tolling, the clock of the Christian Reformed Church was tolling, and I also heard many other ways of tolling. I even seemed to perceive shrill, pedophiliac Papist tolling.
One can hardly deny the pleasantness of the style. It is strange that someone with so many literary gifts should really consider the following argument compelling (although it is not quite clear whether the author still believes in its force, or whether this was a teenage meditation):
Strange, really, that Jesus says that, if you do not accept Him as your Redeemer, you should count on it that after your death you will wail in the outer darkness and gnash your teeth. When you die, and end up in the coffin, your teeth will be there as well. Often those are more or less the last bits of a human that they find after years, so in the outer darkness you will not have any teeth available to gnash with, nor a set of false teeth either.
The book is still quite worth reading, because of the strange real people in it, much stranger than superficial ‘weirdness’. The ending, however, is an anticlimax: it describes the mother’s funeral. The strange circumstances of her death are described with attention and dignity, but the funeral is hardly anything more than a highly negative commentary on the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. The body may be interred, but it seems that the author is still trying to drown out the sound of his mother’s teeth gnashing over his unchildlike unbelief.