The Portrait

Willem Jan-Otten

The Portrait
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The Portrait

Willem Jan-Otten

‘IF YOU, LIKE ME, COME INTO THE WORLD WHITE AND COMPLETELY BLANK, WITH NOTHING ON YOU AT ALL, YOU ARE TOTALLY DEPENDENT ON WHAT THEY MAKE OF YOU.’ The Portrait is an ingenious novel from one of Holland’s greatest living writers. Reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is narrated by a canvas - a key eye - witness to, and participant in, an extraordinary story. A young painter, loved for his fine and true-to-life portraits, receives a commission that is unlike any he’s had before: make a portrait of a dead boy. ‘You will save a life with it’, says the boy’s extremely rich father. The painter knows he will have to surpass himself. He takes on the job. But who was the boy? Why is he dead? Why, when the painting is finished, does the father not come to collect it? And why does the painter undertake this painting? The Portrait is a thrilling novel about the desire to bring someone into the world. But it is also about love and death, betrayal and trust, and truth and falsehood. In a breathtaking feat, Willem Jan Otten plays with secrets and riddles that the reader can only unravel at the very end. Masterfully translated by the award-winning David Colmer, Otten here demonstrates his rare gifts to English readers for the first time.

Review

The Portrait is the latest novel by the esteemed Dutch writer Willem Jan Otten. First published in Holland in 2005, it is one of only a handful of the author’s works translated into English.

An artist is given a commission to make a portrait of a dead boy. The boy’s father is a rich industrialist named Specht. Immediately, the artist finds himself compromised, as he has only ever painted living subjects – he is also not permitted to show his finished work to anyone. The artist accepts these conditions because he has financial obligations, but he soon finds himself out of his depth when his reputation and his integrity are compromised, as things turn out to be not as they seem.

The story is told from the point of view of the expensive canvas the portrait is to be painted on. The author uses his talents as a gifted poet to give the narrative a seamless flow and David Colmer’s translation confirms this. Brilliant.

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