Full of lust for life and optimism for society, the novel’s tone was in sharp contrast to the backdrop of pessimism and fear. Even the writing deviated from the usual literary style of the time, which Walschap described as “la-de-da literature” (too much attention paid to a nice form) or “Streuvels and Timmermans” (too polite and folkloric – in reference to the writers of those names). Like a whirlwind – Marnix Gijsen called it “tornado-style” – Walschap told the story of Houtekiet, an exceptional man, a god, a hero.
At the beginning of the novel, Houtekiet is a wild animal, a loner who only follows his instincts and who sees nothing and no one as superior to him. Following the meeting of Lien and the murder of a policeman, Houtekiet builds a hut for his wife and children on the grave of the policeman. This is the beginning of the village of Deps. Or, from the larger perspective: society was built on the life drive (Eros) and the death drive (Thanatos).
As time passes, more and more people come to live in Deps. Nard Baert brings a commercial spirit and Father Apostelis brings the church. Houtekiet fathers hundreds of children. He has no understanding of exclusivity in love. Until he meets Iphigénie d’Hurlemont. She teaches him that his polyamorous behaviour is the result of a lack of love: “You haven’t become what you had it in you to become any more than I did. You also lacked love. And that’s why you’ve never been able to keep a woman”.
When Iphigénie falls ill, Houtekiet realises that there are things over which he has no power. And when Iphigénie dies, she continues to live on in the heart and mind of Houtekiet. He must now acknowledge that there are forces in life that transcend the individual person. Not that this turns him into a good Catholic. When the church enters the village, Houtekiet thinks that it is something for women – after all, there is a great deal of talking – and moreover, the death of Iphigénie has taught him that the god of the church is too small for the big world.
The real force is in life and nature itself. This is symbolised in the famous ending to the novel. Houtekiet goes to sit in the church tower – he does not participate in the mass, in “mumbling and making the sign of the cross” – and gazes across the landscape: “And he felt at one with that eternity, in which, inviolable to words and thoughts, floats that fine mystery that Iphigénie’s death had made him see and that keeps us all entranced by this earthly life.”
Houtekiet thus remains fascinating as a novel about civilisation and belief and transcends the traditional antagonism between culture and nature, institutionalised religion and individual vitalism. Furthermore, the story is exciting and fast-paced and yet cuts as deeply as would a slow, rambling meditation. This is another reason why it is an exceptional work.
That this book tells us so much about human beings, about life and death, is in itself one of the many “fine mysteries” that Houtekiet “makes us see”.