Everything about Caesarion is hectic, like those dreams you have as a kid when you’re delirious from a high fever. The writing is pitched just a notch higher than you feel the story can sustain, and you career along expecting a crash any minute. Tommy Wieringa is in deadly earnest, and that makes for some unintended moments of comedy, as when his narrator Ludwig announces solemnly, There are moments when I cannot bear the sight of chips. (15)
Ludwig’s is a colourful life: abandoned by his sculptor father to a glamorous mother he later discovers to have been a porn star, he is brought up first in Alexandria
During the day, blocks of sunlight slid across the tiles, cats lay napping on the warm stones. Behind each curtain you were lured into that Byzantine temple. A emerald-green, submarine glow: you could hear your own heartbeat (39)
and then in Ness Head in Suffolk, where his mother buys a house on the cliffs even though she knows it’s in danger of being swept into the sea by the constant pounding of the North Sea. When we meet Ludwig, now in his thirties, he has come back to Ness Head after a twelve-year absence for the funeral of Warren, his old neighbour, whose futile mission in life was to hold back the erosion of the cliffs by the constant dumping of building rubble to create a sea wall. We learn at this stage that Ludwig’s mother, Marthe, has also recently died. The rest of the book tells us what’s happened in those twelve years.
The blurb tells us it’s a page-turning exploration of the power of the absent parent versus the power of the too-present parent. This, I think, underestimates and domesticates Wieringa’s ambition. Marthe is no ordinary “too-present” parent: she’s part erotic fantasy, part princess in the tower with a faithful knight defender, part madonna, part slut, part beautiful stranger seen across a crowded room. Ludwig wants her to ask something of him, and she never does, or not until the very end of her life. He never really finds his footing with her, and I don’t think the reader does either. And his father Bodo is seen not so much in terms of his absence from their lives as through his form of nihilistic “art”, a film in which he buys a mountain and turns it into an abyss with earth-moving machinery and hundred of native workers, his voice-over declaiming,
Oh, the cowardly sanctification of Creation! The emotion! The ideals! The piss-ants! The mysterium tremendum! But destruction is the only thing with permanence. The future belongs only to the anti-Creator (179)
An absent father, he may well be, but that’s not really the point of Bodo. Wieringa seems to be reaching towards a kind of Heart of Darkness Kurtz figure, an impression that’s strengthened by the scenes in which Ludwig finally meets him in the South American jungle. (There’s a touch of Aguirre Wrath of God in there too). And it was never really clear to me why. Then there’s the whole earth-moving thing. First we had Warren trying to shore up cliffs, now we have Bodo trying to tear them down. There’s a theme there, no doubt about it, and the writing in both sections is good, but it feels like overkill.
Just as the title Caesarion, referring to the child of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra (also born in Alexandria), seems gratuitously grandiose, there’s much in the book that seems to be straining for a deeper significance it doesn’t really have. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting and at times compelling, or that Wieringa isn’t talented. He is. I just think his energy is too widely-diffused. There are big themes here, but for me, they didn’t really coalesce.