EUROPEAN LITERATURE'S LOVE affair with decadence has spawned such classic works as Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's overwrought Venus in Furs and Thomas Mann's eviscerating Death in Venice. While velvety, humid, and alluring, these works often seem predictable. We know our hero will do bad deeds. We know he will regret them. And in the end, things will go horribly, deliciously wrong.
At first glance Tim Krabbé's second novel, The Cave, falls right into this formula. As the novel opens, Egon, a Dutch geologist of middling success, has lost his bid for tenure; he has also lost his wife. In order to regain his professional dignity, he must raise 40,000 guilders to buy his way onto an obscure archaeological dig. So it is that Egon winds up in a small Southeast Asian nation, smuggling drugs under a pseudonym.
Rather than excoriate Egon's slide into the criminal, The Cave attempts to vindicate it. The novel cycles back in time to his provincial upbringing, depicting how Egon met his pharmaceutical employer, Axel, at a summer camp in Belgium. Exquisitely charming, this young drug-runner beds virgins, placates angry counselors, and sells hashish during train changeovers. Repulsed by such bravado, Egon promises himself that he will break with Axel. But as the pair grows up, their paths cross again and again. Along the way, Axel parlays his experience and skills into a fortune as an illegal-drug mogul in Amsterdam's burgeoning narcotics market.
By contrast, Egon's arc is mundane and quaint. He studies diligently, meets a nice young woman (whom Axel has already deflowered), and embarks upon an academic career. When Egon hits bottom, he finally admits that Axel's way--the amoral pursuit of personal gain--trumps the virtuous life. Demoralized, he slinks into Southeast Asia, hoping to make a quick score and resume his life as a geologist.
Part thriller, part moral quest, The Cave calls to mind Alex Garland's 1997 novel The Beach. As with Garland's island-hopping hero, Egon abandons his morals. Krabbé, however, goes one step further: By giving Egon a rough end, the author asks us to question whether his sacrifice was worth it. Employing numerous plot twists and sentimental imagery, Krabbé seems to want us to believe that Egon achieves redemption in the improbably choreographed closing scenes. The effect of such a fantastic conclusion is like a bit of Disney thrown into a Michael Mann film.