A retelling of the Jacques the Anabaptist episode, from Voltaire’s classic satire, Candide, Best of All Possible Worlds follows Jakob and Robrecht Onderdonk, two brothers living antithetical lives. Jakob, after abandoning life as a sailor, is on a quest to live a more edifying life on land, while Robrecht is determined to fully embrace a sinful life at sea. Like Candide, Best of All Possible Worlds explores, with a comic air of irreverence and a witty dose of the absurd, the universal problem of evil in a world created by a perfect God.
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When Jakob Onderdonk forwent the cleansing ordinance of baptism for the third time in as many months, he sloshed ashore and, collapsing into a heap, imagined his flesh melting into pink puddles on the searing griddle of Hell's floor. He lay almost despondent at the thought of it, until at length he rose with unsteady resolve to utter the words, “It's not the right time."
They were familiar words to his companion. Bonifaas Quackenboss waded from the river and retrieved a bar of bracken soap. "One of us is going to be washed clean today," said the preacher. "Sin or dirt, no matter to me."
Jakob felt sorry and a bit ashamed. For he had correctly discerned that Bonifaas Quackenboss grew weary of the young man's non-committal ways-although it should be said that discerned may be the wrong word, as no ambiguity existed that Jakob might need discern anything. Neither was weary completely accurate, since Bonifaas was more frustrated than weary. Each failed attempt had ended the same, with Jakob making a similar pronouncement about his state of readiness-or lack of readiness, to be precise.
And so it was that as Jakob slipped from the clinging gossamer frock into his clothes, he wondered if Bonifaas suspected there was a real reason for the disappointing routine. No sooner had he thought it than the flesh of his cheeks swirled red-redder than usual, that is-for Jakob knew there was a reason, a real reason he did not care to discuss with Bonifaas. As kind and compassionate as the preacher was, Jakob doubted that he would understand how sin can hook the insouciant man like a stupefied fish. For Christ was not the only fisher of men. And sin is the deadliest and most devious predator of all-devouring the sick and lame of the fold. Or in Jakob's case, the depraved; at least, so thought Jakob. In any case, though a sinner he might be, Jakob Onderdonk counted himself a believer. And with or without the saving ordinance of baptism, he was one of them: an Anabaptist.
With a somewhat guarded wave of his hand, the young man bid his companion farewell and started down the hard clay road that led home to Leyden. The Oude Rijn River floated over the land in a foggy dream of the North Sea. On the horizon, the summer sun lay tangled in the sails of a slow-meditating windmill. This being the Sabbath, the resplendent green hills of South Holland rang out with a prolonged chorus of hosannas and hallelujahs.
There was simply no end to God's grandeur, it seemed.
Crossing the stone arch of Kanaalbrug, he wound down the lane that would lead him to a modest flat above a cobbler's shop. Pulling a watch from his vest pocket, he checked the time. 6:15. Jakob stepped up the pace.
It should here be said that Jakob Onderdonk was a compulsive checker of time-a chronologist, of sorts. That is, the kind whose world revolves around the tick-tocking of the clock. For there were certain eventualities he hoped to avoid in his day-to-day existence. (Eventuality being the correct term in this case, encompassing not only possibility but also consequence.)
Jakob was about to duck into the doorway when a familiar voice boomed behind him-"Good evening!" Here was one eventuality he had hoped to avoid, the consequence of his tardy arrival home: Pastor Hogarth.
"Good evening, Pastor. I trust your evening service was a monument to the mind and will of God," said Jakob.
"Never mind that, Meneer Onderdonk. Did you seal your fate in perdition this day?" The man of God peered inquisitively from beneath the wide brim of an imposing black hat.
"No, Pastor. I'm afraid not."
"How many balks is that now? The lapsed Franciscan of Bolsward must be writhing in his grave."
"It is not the right time," said Jakob.
The penitent tone of this utterance was like strong drink to the pastor, invigorating him with a heady supremacy. "Not the right time? Ha! Your perpetual shilly-shallying may be the one thing that saves your mortal soul from the inferno below," said he. And with this, Pastor Hogarth swished away in the holy robes of his employ, certain that he had made his point convincingly.
Jakob stood in the pastor's gusty wake with his head hanging slightly lower than before. Even the warm greeting of the calico Gertrude did little to comfort him. Jakob ripped a crust from a loaf of bread and cut a slab of soft ripe cheese. Sitting at the table, he took alternating bites, washing each down with a quaff of bier. His manner was anxious, troubled even. Like a prisoner awaiting judgment. But then, this was nothing out of the ordinary. This too was a weekly occurrence for Jakob Onderdonk-the moment he dreaded every Sabbath eve. Another eventuality. When he, the insouciant man, was snagged like a stupefied fish by sin.
Jakob flipped his pocket watch open: 8:30.
Across the lane, a pale light appeared. His anxiety from only moments before turned instantly to tingling excitement as the faint light swelled and grew, finally teeming into the street. He froze in his seat, his eyes fixed on the buxom figure in the window. From the darkness of his flat, Jakob watched the customary ablutions of the pastor's wife with a kind of profane reverence: the rolling flesh upon her back, the drooping gray buttocks, and the thick fur pelt of her pubis. And then there were the low-hanging breasts with their delectable meat-pie nipples. Jakob allowed his ravenous eyes to feast upon them for a time.
It was precisely at this ticklish moment that Gertrude chose to spring into his lap. (Another eventuality he did his best to avoid.) Sweeping the feline away, Jakob flipped open the buttons of his breeches with an eager hand. Presently, he was fully in the grips of sin. A full-fisted, unrelenting grip, that is. Moments later, he let out a slight gasp at the issue of his zaad. An issue which Gertrude sniffed before walking away with a stiffly vibrating tail.
Jakob slouched before the window and sighed. "The worst of all men is what I am," said he to no one.
The next morning, the clippety-clop of hooves over cobblestone rang through the quaint lanes of Leyden-a familiar sound, proclaiming men to be about the work of a new day, a new week. Jakob awoke from a fitful slumber. His surrender to sin the previous night had made sleeping difficult. The deep but dreamless state had proved to be wholly unsatisfying. As if sin had washed every image from his head and replaced them with a blackness that amounted to a kind of restless emptiness.
He rose to find a scrap of dried cod and tossed it to Gertrude. Making ready a bowl of boiled oats, he spooned it into his mouth with a clear lack of relish. And when he shaved, Jakob did not so much as peek at himself in the mirror. Nor did he brush his breeches and jacket before dressing himself. It wasn't until he left the flat and breathed in the cool morning air that Jakob's spirits began to rise, for he knew that a vision awaited him. A vision much different than the lurid exhibition he had witnessed the previous night. What awaited him today was loveliness, pure and simple. It was what he lived for these days.
Jakob arrived at the factory ten minutes early-7:20 sharp-as was his habit. The dankness of the room led him to prop open windows. As he did, he noted how the abandoned carpet looms were not unlike the ribbed hulls of shipwrecks lying at the bottom of the sea. He thought it strange that he had never noticed this before. The looms' skeletal shafts and beams reminded him that he may well have escaped just such a fate. For as his father had always said, "The sea never loses." But for Jakob Onderdonk, the sea had indeed lost. And he had found the Lord and had been found by the Lord. Two cosmically synchronized events that had changed everything, that had changed him.
Unlocking the office door, he dropped down behind a spare desk and shuffled some papers. At one time, it had been the best he could afford-in the early years. Now he had the means to purchase better, something more befitting a young manufacturer, but still Jakob chose to keep the desk as a reminder of his humble beginnings.
And it was from behind that very desk that he whiled away his days admiring his beloved Heleen through the glass. Her nimble fingers braiding colored strands of wool or passing the shuttle to thread the warp. Her delicate hands trimming and hemming. Her bouncing knees beneath a stuff gown producing a working rhythm, the beat to which she marched diligently from one end of the working day to the other. Truly, she was a sight to behold.
Yet it should be said that the beloved in question knew nothing of her young master's affections for her. From the start, Heleen had attributed his acts of kindness to a profound good-heartedness in Jakob and not to any real matter of the heart. Although it must also be said that she did admire him greatly-his good-heartedness, that is. Or so she told herself.
The factory door rattled open and in she walked. 7:25. Five minutes early, as was her habit. Five minutes to make tea. But this day, Heleen stood in Jakob's office doorway, her hands pressed tightly together, not making tea. She wore a gray traveling gown and her black hair was tucked into a linen hood tied loosely beneath her chin. Although pensive, her visage looked pleasingly bright, despite a forced smile that produced petite dimples on either cheek. These, Jakob held to be the best of all her womanly charms.
"Meneer Onderdonk-" She stopped, tearing up.
"Heleen!" Jakob hoisted himself onto two unsteady lower limbs. "What is it? What troubles you?"
"I must leave for Lisbon this very morning. I am sorry."
"But what has happened?"
"My tante is sick. And my cousins have been conscripted by Prussian forces. I must go and attend to my family."
"But when will you return?" The urgency of the question was very nearly overcome by its apparent underlying plea.
"I do not know." She took a step back then turned to leave.
Jakob summoned every scrap, every shred of courage that lay in his sickened soul and spoke: "Heleen, wait."
"Yes, Meneer Onderdonk?"
"Might I, that is, what I mean to say is would I be presuming too much if I asked you to receive my letters?"
Heleen's smile returned, this time a more natural version of the first. "You want to write?"
"Yes, I want to write."
From the Journal of Jacob Onderdonk September 12, 1746
Son of Batavia docked in its home harbor today with her hold full of black powder and tea from the orient. Father seemed especially eager to report to the office of Opperhoofd Kunst and made it clear that Robrecht and I were to accompany him without comment or question. It is not uncommon for the ship's officers to accompany the captain to VOC headquarters; however, Robrecht and I are, in fact, low-ranking officers, and thus, leaving First Mate Bloothooft and Second Mate Merteens behind on company docks to see to lowly ship matters was an unprecedented oddity. Needless to say, both Robrecht and I knew something was afoot, although we knew not the exact nature of it. I think it would be fair to say that Robrecht was annoyed by what amounted to an inconvenience, at least to his way of thinking, for it was clear by the way Able Seaman Dag, Robrecht's wilfully abiding sidekick, lurked about the ship's quarterdeck that the two of them had plans to slink into the brothels of Glodock. For my part, I was simply curious as to what would call for such unusual proceedings.
Opperhoofd Kunst welcomed Robrecht and I into his office with a familiarity that would suggest we had been long and close acquaintances, which was not the case, although such was indeed the case with father and the opperhoofd. Father sat at Opperhoofd's bidding, while Robrecht and I remained standing. At this point, father was beaming like a topmast sun in equatorial waters. Without delay and with no amount of conspicuous ceremony, Opperhoofd Kunst informed us that effective immediately, Robrecht and myself were to be moved up in the ranks of Son of Batavia: Robrecht to third mate and I to first. I am sure that the surprise which registered on my face in that moment was clear to both Opperhoofd and my father. And in truth, it appeared that the two men took some small measure of amusement from my reaction. However, if I was clearly surprised, Robrecht was likewise disgruntled. For it occurred to me only later that my younger sibling truly believed the rank of first mate should have been rightfully his.
I do not wish to here question the judgment of Opperhoofd or my father, but I must simply say that after some consideration, I believe Robrecht may be right. For in my years at sea (which are now just above six) I have discovered that some men are accepting of, or perhaps suited for, the chaos and lawlessness of life at sea, while others are continually trying to force order and array upon something which by its very nature incites disorder and disarray in everything and everyone about it. Clearly, Robrecht is a man of the former ilk, while I am a man of the latter. Yet even as I write this I know that father would ardently contend that the sea needs more men of the latter ilk and less of the former, for although the sea cannot be tamed, it must not be allowed to wreak havoc upon Man and his worthy endeavors. How am I to respond to such well-meaning platitudes? How is any man to respond? Although Robrecht, I feel certain, would brave a simple and direct response, as he is known to do, and bellow, "Hogwash!"
What People are Saying About This
Reminiscent of John Barth's Sotweed Factor and equally accomplished, Gary Anderson's Best of All Possible Worlds is a sustained comic delight. Masterful, outrageous, teeming with exotic incidents and characters.… An astonishingly fine novel. Don't miss it. -- Terry Richard Bazes, Novelist, Author of Lizard World
Best of All Possible Worlds is a literary tour de force of real genius. The narrative voice is one of a kind: witty, shrewd, captivating, hilarious. Its satirical quality rivals Voltaire in Candide. Anderson's brilliant imagination for his story line knows no bounds and signifies his indelible mark as a story teller. This ambitious epic genuinely is the best of all possible literary novels read this masterpiece. --David B. Lentz, Author of Bloomsday
In Best of All Possible Worlds Gary Anderson recreates Voltaire's narrative style, but with a conceptualist's eye. He takes a small fragment from Candide and builds a rich story upon it that is full of comedic turns of phrase...I continue to be impressed with Anderson's literary genius and highly recommend Best of All Possible Worlds to anyone looking for a critical and fresh look at the world. -- Jacqueline Valencia, Author of Tristise