I was lucky enough to win another contest on one of the Dutch language SF/F forums I frequent. Het Bouwplan appeared with the small publisher Verschijnsel, specialized in what it calls literature of ideas. The title literally means building scheme but I suppose you could also say blueprint. Van Dongen uses the more literal 'blauwdruk' in another context in the book so it is probably not his translation of choice. It would make for a better title in English I think, so for the purpose of the review I am going to refer the 'het Bouwplan' as the Blueprint. The description of the book intrigued me, it was the reason I participated in the contest in the first place. If you read Dutch there is a very pretty website dedicated to it. In short, it certainly looked promising after reading it I have to conclude it is not quite my cup of tea.
A plot summary for this book is going to be a bit of a pain. Not because the book doesn't have one, but because the structure of the story is very loose. It does not offer the reader a lot to hold on to. Early on in the book we meet Ralen (although it takes several chapters before we get to know his name). Ralen is a Traveller, a man obsessed with rooting out the structure of the world and revealing the Blueprint's mysteries. The Blueprint, the mysterious building scheme of the world, one that is both the origin of life and a prison in which to capture it. A structure shattered in six separate sections that Ralen wants to reunite. He is cursed with amnesia but never lost this obsession with the Blueprint. Throughout the book, as one theory after another about nature the Blueprint is proposed and rejected, he never looses sight of this objective.
I have to hand it to the publisher, the book, as in the object itself is a beauty. A very nice sturdy hardcover, the type that may actually last a lifetime, good cover art and one of those nice bookmark ribbons. They obviously went all the way on this book. I wish more publishers would take as much care about their product. If there is one thing I can't stand it is a hardcover falling apart after two readings. My feelings about the content are mixed though.
The book is written in the first person, except for one chapter where the point of view suddenly changes to another character, we see the entire story through Ralen's eyes. Ralen is a confused man, he does not remember much about his previous life. Especially early on in the book his actions and responses to the other characters do not make much sense. The writing feels like raw sensory input, a creature trying to make sense of the world around him but misses a framework to make sense of what he experiences. The world he lives in and his obsession are as much a mystery to Ralen as they are to the reader.
Creating a mysterious atmosphere in the book is exactly what the author aims at of course and we do learn more about Ralen's world along the way. Unfortunately his actions do not become much more coherent. With each new character he encounters and with each new idea his idea about the Blueprint he is exposed to, he runs of in entirely different direction. The book contains fractions that later unite and betray each other again with Ralen at the centre of it. Motivations for this kind of behaviour are often found in vague philosophical differences of opinion. Some of the characters express their admiration for Ralen's ability to roll with the punches life (or the Blueprint) deals him. To me he appears impulsive and forever responding to changed circumstances. These changes in direction even seem to suppress his sense of morality at one point in the book, leading to a particularly gruesome scene when he let's out his most primal desires. It makes his actions feel almost random. I had so much trouble getting into Ralen's head that it was very difficult to really connect with the character.
One of the few more or less constant ideas Ralen seems to toy with is the idea that happiness and a purpose to life are found in the tribal hunter/gatherer cultures of humanity's past. A structure where an individual is still an important part of the collective, without the individual being crushed by anonymity of a larger structure. It's in idea I've come across before in Kim Stanley Robinson's work in a slightly different forms of the social and economic level. It's a very interesting theme to explore and I wish the author had looked a bit deeper into it. Ralen reuniting his tribe, as a human parallel to reuniting the six sections, would have made a wonderful story line and a structure to support the rest of the story.
As it is, the story shoots off in too many different directions to be a really enjoyable read. Especially early on in the book it can be downright confusing. The persistent reader is rewarded with a fitting end but the author leaves me puzzled about what a lot of story elements have to do with achieving Ralen's ultimate goal. The end makes me suspect I missed a few things along the way. I think I owe this book a reread in a year or so, to see if that is in fact the case. On this first reading however, I would have appreciated a approach a bit more methodical and a bit less impulsive to uncovering the mysteries of the Blueprint.
Title: Het Bouwplan
Author: F.H. van Dongen
First published: 2009