Book review - Caesarion

Ludwig is born in Alexandria. When his Austrian father, a failed artist, does not return from a trip abroad, his Dutch mother Marthe is forced to bring him up alone. He is nicknamed Caesarion – Little Caesar – in reference to another child abandoned by his father.

Following an abortive attempt to return to Holland, the two end up living on a clifftop in Suffolk, in an area threatened by erosion from the North Sea. Marthe, having failed to live up to her own promise as a classical singer, encourages the young Ludwig to take up piano lessons.

But when they lose their house, Marthe disappears – supposedly in search of a new home. Ludwig, now a young man, embarks on his own journey – an odyssey that takes him around the world, using his skills as a pianist to pay his way.

Tommy Wieringa's ambitious novel, translated by Sam Garrett, is a brilliant exploration of the uneasy transition from adolescence into adulthood – the restlessness, yearning for stability, irrational decisions and erotic obsessions. Ludwig's emotional rites of passage lie in his attempt to understand his mother: his shame at her profession in the porn industry, his feelings of resentment and his filial love. Along the way, he rejects the possibility of romantic love with Sarah, an environmental activist, opting instead to accompany Marthe on her next journey, convinced he can "save" her. He tells himself, "although I had lost her any number of times, she was indeed the only one I had. There couldn't be anyone else, we were the sole witnesses to each others' lives." A large part of the novel is about the unspoken bond between mother and son.

Ludwig does not remember his father, but his "absence" affects him profoundly. When he finally finds the elusive Schultz, deep in the Panama jungle, the similarities with Conrad's Kurtz are obvious. Both deserted women, both have stared into the abyss, both are lost in a nihilistic world of their own making. For Schultz, "Only destruction has a permanent character". In a neat twist, Ludwig suggests his mother's last thoughts were for Schultz, "to burden whatever remained of his conscience, to force him to remember". It is only after the death of his mother and symbolic rejection of his father that Ludwig returns to the Suffolk coast, the only home he has ever really known, and realises that he has his own life to lead, "that everything was beginning."

Originally published in the Independent on 23 August 2011