No Man's Land - the debut novel by Bernard Lovink - tells the story of a man whose "freedom" unexpectedly falls into his lap. But does he have the strength to use his newfound freedom for good? Or will he stumble with eyes wide open into the same old pitfalls?
The degree and kind of a man's sexuality
reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit.
Part I: Reorientation
Part II: Arcadia Destroyed
Part III: The Great Plan
Not everyone finds satisfaction in hurtling through time on the overcrowded train called "society". A single person jumps
off... After the colossus has faded from view,
the cacophony of steel on steel ceases to be deafening,
he becomes aware of the soft sound of the wind through the trees...
He stands up, brushes the dust from his clothes, stretches his limbs,
and hastily clambers off the embankment to avoid seeing
the coming trains, so as not to be overcome by regret and
pity for those who, like him, look like living beings, indeed
like people, and who will quickly become unreal in his
PART I: REORIENTATION
In hindsight, it would seem as though thirty-four-year-old Christiaan Jacob Janssen fundamentally lacks an instinct for self-preservation. Perhaps Chris – as he is known among friends – is unaware that he has been driving for the last hour and a half toward catastrophe, and certainly he cannot know that he will soon narrowly escape an inferno that will capture the attention of every television-watching or newspaper-reading citizen of the world.
It is a Saturday afternoon, the eleventh of May in a still somewhat nascent third millennium. The air is bright and sunny, a surprisingly warm spring morning. Chris has been invited to give a lecture that afternoon to members of an urban literary society on the “future of fiction”. He taps the steering wheel in nervous anticipation as he mulls over his stimulating intro for the dozenth time: Does compiled writing still stand a chance?
Chris checks his watch. 2:15 pm. Still well ahead of schedule he thinks as he rolls into the city. He will have plenty of time to meet with his old colleague, who has a preference for downtown buildings in the old city. His colleague has recently accepted a post at the Alma Mater in the city and asked Chris to tag along to tour a few real estate listings.
Chris, guided by his Falkland GPS, parks his car in the thin shade of a row of shabby trees in a friendly-looking, but somewhat cluttered 1930s neighborhood. The tranquility all around suggests that many residents of this neighborhood – nestled in a quiet pocket just outside the city center – are today finding recreation outside of the city.
Chris is impressed by the robust supply in the city’s real estate market. Notes are made (type, size, location, sun position, visible state of maintenance, facsimile brokerage) on four properties offered for sale. This foursome, plotted out on a field of imaginary lines and diagonals, forms an almost perfect rectangle around a dilapidated plot of land boasting an old, ramshackle warehouse, clearly abandoned. Children have been lighting fires there.
'Sufficient to be going on with,' he murmurs.
While Chris seems to lack the instinct for self-preservation, he does have an eye and an ear for quietly approaching disasters creeping up on him in felt slippers: pale shadows leaping forward, vibrations in the atmosphere, portents like those of an earthquake that cause sensitive creatures instinctively to fly from the trees, crawl in or out of the ground, or softly howl. He will remember slightly later – when the dust settles and the fires dampen – feeling a sensation as if the air pressure around him was increasing slightly, pressing against his eardrums. The heat becomes almost oppressive, with waves of it rustling in the shabby trees and driving the flies to become more insistent, even more aggressive perhaps.
Chris checks his watch again. 2:45 pm. An electronic signboard flashes 28°C at the small corner parking lot. A sound like water gushing into a sewer after a downpour puts Chris on edge. It seems nearby, but as he cranes his neck, Chris can see that the noise is coming from behind a row of houses. With hindsight, and after reading an account in a newspaper, Chris will conclude that it was at a distance of about two hundred meters, at least, and that the sound was not gushing water at all, but a glowing blaze shot high into the air. The ball of fire drops to the ground and shatters as if glass, sending flames in every direction, the effect of which, Chris decides later, was only slightly spoiled by the bright direct sunlight.
Then a sudden, intense heat upends the atmosphere. For a moment, Chris feels as though two glowing hands are tightening their grasp around his neck, then he's thrown to the ground by a hot blast of air. He's on his feet in an instant, looking for somewhere, anywhere, to take cover.
Finding nowhere suitable, Chris turns and runs. The streets are suddenly filling with people investigating the sound, and they stand frozen, awestruck by the grandiose firework display, forcing Chris to weave and jump and shove his way through the crowd as he flees. Moments later (a second, a few seconds?), the blast. Is it one, is it more, is it a series of blasts? Chris doesn't know anymore. For a moment there is only the silence of the grave. This is the grave! Chris thinks. He will only remember the most heart-rending part of what follows, dazed as he was by that Neolithic explosion: an invisible force like a wave breaking, shattered windows pushed into the houses all around, people screaming, people bleeding, those who are still able to stand rushing for safety. It all seems like a gruesome fairy tale to him, one full of icy reality, written to terrify grown-ups. Roofs are blown off houses, floors collapse. Chris sees a man and woman, both naked, standing in the bedroom of their home whose facade has been blown away, cracked open like a dollhouse. The woman covers her face with her hands and her screams slice through Chris. He sees an outer wall crumble to rubble and a child buried, the sound of bricks collapsing on cobblestones behind him. Window frames burst from falling facades and clatter on the street right in front of him. Roof tiles slide from building tops and shatter on the paving stones all around him, yet by some miracle, he isn't hit, all around him the unspeakable horrors of fiery destruction.
The hot squall is all around him: the blow of the shockwave to his back, birds flying off in every direction, a cat darts in front of him, then a large dog with its tail between its legs, all emerging from and disappearing into the thickening clouds of dust and grit that flow into the narrow street behind him, taking possession, catching and enveloping him. Yet behind this cacophony, Chris hears the soft rustle of last autumn’s leaves whipping in the wind of the firestorm, and for an instant, everything is clear: fate has pulled back its dark and heavy cloak and extended a weathered hand to him. Suppressing a whoop of delight, Chris Janssen steps into the fold.
In hindsight, fate should not have staked so much on Chris. A handful of injuries, a couple of victims, one or two missing, a few damaged houses. Why so many dead and missing people for one person's luck? Surely, he isn't worth such a high price, is he?
Consider your next move carefully, Chris thinks to himself. Consider? He runs down another street. The sign above a shop door reads 'party supplies'. He rushes in and, in halting bursts, tries to explain what he’s seen – and smelled and heard – to the thin, silver-haired shopkeeper. Shaken, the man rushes outside, and after choosing a wig, a pair of thick framed glasses and a mustache (he picks up a joke nose, then shakes his head and sets it down again), Chris walks out without paying. The shopkeeper is rushing toward the sound of disarray, and Chris hurries in the opposite direction.
Leave nothing to chance. Rounding the corner, Chris ducks between some bushes, to don his new appearance. There is a plausible chance in our small country, he thinks, that someone will remember. He imagines the reports to come. Chris Janssen? Yes, I saw him walking just there. No, after the explosion, I'm sure of it. Still, I thought... and on it would go until eventually, yes, they would find him alive and the jig would be up, his moment lost. So, yes. Now. He needs a different appearance, immediately. And also, a different inner self, as he still believes in all his awful ignorance that Chris Janssen can truly disappear. He isn’t Chris anymore. He isn’t Janssen anymore (a last name he's been unhappy with for at least twenty-five years). He decides he’ll come up with a new name eventually, but for now, he's nothing. A Nobody. N. for short.
Chris continues walking hurriedly down the streets in whatever direction feels like the opposite of the explosion. Finally, he comes upon a ladies' bicycle leaning against a house. He, who has never stolen anything in his life, checks whether the bike is locked. It isn't.
He feels like a twelve-year-old miscreant as he jumps on the saddle, pedaling as fast as he can away from the scene of disaster. He waits for the imagined shouts of "stop thief!" to echo through the neighborhood and fade away behind him, but they do not come. It’s as though the entire city has been paralyzed by the infernal event. Or perhaps this is the day of judgment freely rendered from Belcampo (N. can already hear Kees Brusse's distressed voiceover). He thinks that perhaps the difference between mine and yours has been blasted away, and the moment has come at last to introduce collective ownership according to Bakunin and the little red books. Some events force different times.
It isn’t long before N. leaves the last houses of the stricken city behind. With whizzing, slightly under-inflated tires, he rides to the countryside. Warm wind whips at his face, adding to his feeling of giddy jubilation, like a long-caged bird that’s finally been set free. The weight of worry has lifted when suddenly N. realizes that, without purpose or preference, he has set his course for the north. Towards home. Or, at least, towards Chris Janssen’s home. Apparently, the tendency to flee back to where one came from, back to home and hearth, is a deep-seeded condition.
But N. cannot go to Chris Janssen’s home. As he slows, a thick column of smoke catches him, spreading the scent of burning scrap wood, fired stone, and warm slag from the old coke-fired foundry. He isn’t far from where he was born, played, and went to school. At the next intersection he cycles through, deliberately rerouting his path.
Heading southwest and toward the fading sunlight, N. guides the bicycle onto a paved cycle path alongside a wide road. An unbroken procession of ambulances and fire trucks, sirens blaring and lights flashing, stream past him and into the city. It takes some time before N. notices that the traffic is only going one way; the counter-flow of traffic has pulled over along the side, having crept onto the verge, giving the impression of a modesty quite uncommon among Dutch drivers. It is all far too serious. N. is noticeably the only person moving in the opposite direction, the culprit fleeing the inferno behind him; the light, the sun, the summer, the future, to meet his new future.
The road rolls gently through green pastures where cows graze, too stoic to be bothered by this human activity, unaware of the ominous cloud on the eastern horizon, their slow brains interpreting the explosion as a distant storm at most. N. looks around, realizing suddenly that, aside from those tucked behind the glass and metal of their busy vehicles, there are no people anywhere. Not even at the houses he's passing by. Colorful summer chairs have been set out here and there on lawns and patios, but they are unoccupied. There is no one enjoying the cool shade of equally colorful parasols. What an untapped luxury, N. thinks as he begins to sweat slightly.