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Myth and rebellion in a new ice age


Peter Verhelst

Perfect order always degenerates into chaos, and revolutions into hell. In ‘Tonguecat’, Peter Verhelst describes a city falling apart and descending into violence. The story takes the form of a dark allegorical fairy tale with a king, a city, a God (Prometheus) and a girl (Ulrike). The mythical world is replaced by a contemporary earthly city where increasingly rapid rejuvenation has been exalted as the highest good.

No writer more physical or sensual than Peter Verhelst
Vrij Nederland

Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind, descends to earth and is taken in tow by Ulrike, who shows him the slums where revolution is brewing. But dissatisfaction is rife at court too. Prometheus is murdered and a severe winter sets in that will ravage the land for years. When the king goes in search of human warmth and disappears, the revolution breaks out.

‘Tonguecat’ is a real literary tour de force, a visionary story about today’s urban society and about revolutions.

A display of fireworks so sensual you can taste them
Gouden Uil jury
‘A unique 21st century Brueghelian voice’
Sherry Macdonald, English translator of ‘Tonguecat’

‘Reading the book before embarking on the translation proved to be both an infuriating and intoxicating experience. Infuriating because I had to ‘unlearn’ all my previous reading strategies and felt an overwhelming sense of disorientation, intoxicating because the hallucinatory prose crept inexorably under my skin and left me hooked on wanting to know where this surreal world would take me. And so it all began. Not surprisingly, translating Verhelst’s poetic and sensory word-paintings turned into an exhilarating experience. Trying to retain the book’s essential oddity while also rendering it intelligible proved a relentless challenge.

The literary critics, who are better placed to identify ‘Tonguecat’ as a modern classic, have likened Verhelst’s work to that of Jorge Luis Borges and William Gibson. I can only say that ‘Tonguecat’ struck me as a unique 21st century Brueghelian voice, obliquely and disturbingly addressing the unpredictability of our future and compelling us, as readers, to assume nothing and stay alert. Now, a decade on, this assessment seems more apt than ever.’