Tonguecat by Verhelst, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble


by Verhelst
A Visionary Novel By a Leading New International Writer

Tonguecat tells the story of a city’s decline into chaos and violence upon the arrival of Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. In the Netherlands, the novel has been described as “a cross between Jorge Luis Borges’s mystical labyrinth and


A Visionary Novel By a Leading New International Writer

Tonguecat tells the story of a city’s decline into chaos and violence upon the arrival of Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. In the Netherlands, the novel has been described as “a cross between Jorge Luis Borges’s mystical labyrinth and William Gibson’s futuristic sprawl” (The Rights Report).

As the novel opens, Prometheus abandons a mythical, primeval world ruled by violence for a cold, earthly city that is perpetually in renewal—a caricature of the city in which we live.

Once descended, Ulrike, an orphaned girl whose body produces music, guides Prometheus though the slums of the city. Prometheus finds himself in a counterculture of squatters, junkies, and storytelling whores—called tonguecats. The fire of resistance is smoldering all through the city; although the court continues to function, opposition to the monarchy mounts, and the king leaves his palace in search of human warmth.

Peter Verhelst’s story, together with the city, bursts apart at the seams. Tonguecat is a visionary novel—and a tour de force of imaginative and surreal writing.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Just over 40, Belgian novelist and critic Verhelst edits a literary magazine and won two top prizes in the Netherlands for this phantasmagoric novel, his first to be translated into English and published in the U.S. Like Carla Harryman's post-apocalyptic, sexually supercharged Gardner of Stars, Ben Marcus's much gentler Notable American Women: A Novel or Alice Notley's recent excoriations of the present, this book turns on explorations of gender as refracted through social hierarchies that have collapsed into haphazard, "warmth"-seeking violence, fueled by rumor, desperation and inarticulate despair. Each of its eight chapters is narrated by, and named for, a different character (excluding a short poetic epilogue). The book opens with "Strawberry Mouth" during the year Zero, when, instead of a global warming-based inferno, the country freezes, the king orders the word "winter" to be banned and the young male narrator's family members die one by one, leaving him to survive on the street: "us, eat, survive." Religion fails. The king evaporates in orgiastic communion with the "Girl-with-Red-Hair." That's just the first 20 pages, but Verhelst goes on to confront possible pasts and futures from multiple perspectives. "Wallwoman" is confronted by the dead, who leave just as quickly "to gorge on my stories." "Fleshcrown" begins his narrative: "I'm the king, I'm not the king," and may or may not be a murderous, deluded soldier. "Firehair" wryly describes court life during one of her eight other lives. Verhelst produces a disorienting allegorical charge out of the dissonance between the fairy tale-like evocations of the court and what king and subjects actually practice: war, sexual mayhem and random death. But readers will have to be predisposed to recognize the actual present-where war, sexual brutality and random death figure prominently for many-in the subterranean nightmare described here. (Aug. 1) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
"The first flower I remember was golden, and it came out of a boy's mouth." In this original work-perhaps best described as magical realism meets dystopian cyberpunk-strikingly surreal images flash from Dutch novelist Verhelst's pen, much as fire flares from the mouth of his Prometheus. Verhelst's retelling seems simultaneously ancient and modern, creating a sense of chaotic timelessness and further deepening the overwhelming surrealism. Various versions of the story are told by various versions of the characters. This is bewildering, but over time the story becomes more compelling if never entirely clear. The most fascinating character is Ulrike, Prometheus' lover and guide through the underground community of storytelling prostitutes, junkies, and revolutionaries who seek to restore warmth to a frozen land. Marx deserves praise for what must have been a formidable translation into English, rendering fantastic imagery and scattering occasional clues to what may or may not be going on. Patient readers who "translate" and comprehend the tale at a deeper level will be rewarded. Recommended for medium to large public and academic libraries.-Jim Dwyer, California State Univ. Lib., Chico Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Incoherent allegory involving the descent of Prometheus to an imaginary modern city. Dutch editor Verhelst received several awards (Golden Owl Award, Young Golden Owl Award) for this debut novel in the Netherlands, so the most charitable assumption must be that a great deal was lost in the translation. Whatever the case, the story is about as intelligible as Finnegan's Wake but entirely lacking in originality of the kind that animated Joyce. We begin in the year Zero in an unnamed city that is probably supposed to be somewhere on the planet Earth. The city is undergoing the Great Winter, becoming frozen over bit by bit until its inhabitants are driven to extremes of behavior (alcohol, amputations, orgies) to keep warm. The King, concerned for his people, consults his magicians and tries to avert complete disaster by marrying the Girl-With-Red-Hair. Eventually, the King disappears, though his courtiers maintain a precarious hold on power. Soon Prometheus arrives, bringing fire with him. He is guided through the city by a young woman named Ulrike, who creates music with her body. Prometheus is a Titan (that is, one of the exiled gods), and soon more Titans follow him to the city. Later, there's a revolution against the King, and the rebels (who use ice bullets in their attacks) are helped by the Titans. Or maybe not-it's hard to tell. As expected in any story with Prometheus, there's a consuming fire, this one destroying much of the city-or, possibly, much of another city. A good part of the narration is a kind of New Age impressionism ("Smooth wood. A tabletop. The back of a chair. A blanket. A bed. Hair. More hair. Faces"). In all, unsatisfying, if not pompous gibberish.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.19(d)

Meet the Author

Peter Verhelst, born in 1962, lives in Belgium, where he is the editor of the literary magazine Dietse Warande & Belfort. Tonguecat was awarded the Golden Owl and the Young Golden Owl, two of the Netherlands’ top literary prizes.

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