When Ivo Michiels published Book Alpha in 1963, he could not count on a warm reception. Those with experience in such matters thought that Michiels’ curious novel would never sell. No one would want to read it: it was too difficult and modern. In short, it was a book for snobs.
But Michiels’ strange novel full of weird metaphors, endless sentences and images from feverish dreams struck a chord with many readers. However, although Book Alpha attracted a growing public of adventurous readers, it always remained a sort of cult work. The term does not do justice to the overwhelming masterpiece that is Book Alpha.
At first glance, Book Alpha appears to be an unbridled stream of consciousness that reflects the doubts of a soldier on guard duty. In fact, the sentry wants to obey his orders and stand guard for the barracks. But if he does, he might mentally cave in to the military terror of the eternal left right left right that resounds in his head. He longs for the warm lap of his beloved An, whom he strongly idealises. But if he leaves his post, he may be sentenced to death as a deserter and would, therefore, be endangering himself.
All sorts of unpleasant memories accompany this wavering between stasis and action. The life of a soldier is characterised by moments of humiliation and pain that always revolve around the same questions: Are you coming or don’t you dare? Is it that you can’t or that you don’t want to? Terrifying images pile up. Flags and boots make people blind and crazy. Schram, the simple butcher with his knife, embodies fear, power and violence. And the very sincere and legitimate question of whether there is perhaps a God is coldly hijacked by dogma and orders.
Book Alpha is an explosion of questions, doubts and visions. The contents of the sentry’s head are released on the reader in a relentless stream of words. The novel can be read as a loving ode to the imagination, love and language, but the author also throws the power of these into sharp relief. What is the point of a deluge of words and thoughts while outside a war is raging? Can you use your imagination to defend yourself against someone waving a gun? Can you truly love someone if you have been so severely repressed and ruined by the church, the state, the army and everything that man in his evil can throw at you?
For this novel, the first in the voluminous Alpha Cycle, Ivo Michiels sought and found an unusual style for an unusual message. This book is not about war: it is war. It is not about language: it is language.
Book Alpha is also not about the power and the essence of great literature: it simply is one of the greatest works of Dutch-language literature.