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'When I read all these observations about myself, I was in shock.' Ariëlla Kornmehl on her new novel 'The taxman'

For her new novel The tax expert Ariëlla Kornmehl did not have to look far for her inspiration. From one day to the next, she herself became a protagonist in a story, as it turned out that her tax consultant harboured a silent obsession with her. "When I read all those observations about myself, I was in shock," she says.

After the publication of her previous novel, What I had to keep quiet, it was quiet around writer Ariëlla Kornmehl (46) for a while. For the past few years, she had been working on another book, when suddenly another story presented itself and urgently needed to be written: that became her new novel The tax expert. It is about tax consultant Anton, who becomes increasingly obsessed with Mila, a client of his, so much so that at times he even follows her or is on the lookout at her house. The story consists of two lines: the taxman's story, told by an omniscient narrator, and the personal voicememos that Anton records to calm his temper.

The novel is inspired by Kornmehl's own life: when her tax consultant died suddenly, she turned out to play a rather unexpected and prominent role in his files. The dubious honour of being the object of someone's obsession - suddenly Kornmehl herself seemed like a character in someone else's story. The book she was working on had to give way, she decided. 'Of course, I couldn't resist writing a novel about this.'

What had happened?

'My tax specialist passed away unexpectedly, he was only 61. He was like a confidant for my family. Because he handled all kinds of ongoing matters for me - I also work for our family company, which manages real estate - his files had to be transferred to someone else as soon as possible. When I was sent them, they turned out to include all sorts of personal notes about me. A bizarre surprise, but of course a gift for a writer of psychological novels.'

What did you find?

'Parts of the voice memos as contained in my book are authentic. If he was on his way back from visiting clients, he would speak on his iPhone how the meeting had gone, and add all sorts of personal comments to that record. Like reading a psychiatrist's file detailing how he felt about you. He turned out to be very focused on me and had observed me extremely well. So he described all kinds of personal things about me and my family relationships, and commented on how I behaved. For example, he thought I was very quiet and submissive. That kept me up nights. I had always found him a pleasant man, the contact felt very safe. But when I read all those observations about myself, I was in shock.'

Pretty scary that someone you trusted turned out to be so obsessed.

'Indeed. I found it fascinating to be able to see into his psyche like that through those notes. It made me realise that someone you deal with regularly or work with, so without noticing, can have such a secret obsession. By we often talk about dickpics and sexual assault, but this was taking place on another level: in the mind of someone with whom I had a trusting relationship. Similarly, anyone can have a colleague with wrong ideas. I find that perhaps even more frightening than receiving a photograph, because at least you know what someone is up to.'

Insight into the psyche

Why did you want to write a book about it?

'Because I got such a surprising insight into his psyche, as a woman I wanted to try to penetrate his thought processes and try to understand him. I discovered what the lack of real connection and intimacy can do to someone. It makes one lonely and can possibly even have dangerous consequences. Delving into that was exciting, and working on that became almost obsessive in itself. I wrote much of the book during the Covid pandemic, so I sat alone in my study and was busy with him all the time, just as he had been busy with me. So I became, as it were, obsessed with the protagonist in my novel who was obsessed with me. All this did make me think. In sexual abuse, most of the crimes are committed by someone in the immediate circle. I began to understand that better, because so I myself didn't realise all these years that my fiscal thought that way about me. It was interesting to discover, and also threatening.'

In the novel, that sense of threat is linked to Mila's Jewish family background. Do you recognise that?

'Yes, the feeling of always having to be alert in order to escape is in my genes. My grandparents brought me up with the idea that I should always pay attention, not be naive, that I should be able to pick up the signals from society. I worked for three years in Germany with an educational programme, and that was near Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. That felt very intense, so on my own in Germany. Sometimes there were former SS people in the room and they would come up to me with questions after my lecture - I found that most frightening.'

Was it confronting that you may have missed signals?

'If a stranger addresses me on the street, I am immediately wary. But especially as a woman, you can therefore easily fall into the trap of having someone in your inner circle as safe that may not be. So yes, I am always on my guard, but apparently not enough. At the same time, nothing really transgressive has happened, and that may be due to my feelers. Anyway, you have little control over the invisible - what happens in thoughts and feelings in someone's brain. That is precisely why it was such a gift for me as a writer. I always try to get into the skin of my characters as much as possible, but now I came very close.'

You didn't choose the woman's perspective. Why not?

'I was keen to show how he sees hár. Because through his notes, I discovered that my tax expert saw me very differently from how I saw myself. I found that perspective more interesting and exciting, because doesn't that apply to all of us? Another person probably always sees you differently than you see yourself. Does this mean I have the wrong self-image? What is the truth? Who am I? By writing novels, I keep getting a little further in that quest.'

And is there a new taxman in the meantime? Not afraid of repetition?

Kornmehl laughs. 'Well... it has become a lady. So at least that problem seems to have been solved.'

Good to know Good to know
Ariella Kornmehl, The tax expert, 208 p., € 22,99

<em><strong>Who is Ariella Kornmehl?</strong></em>
Ariëlla Kornmehl (1975) made her debut in 2001 with the novel Huize Goldwasser, which was later edited and republished under the title The Goldwasser family (2013). Her second book, Butterfly month (2005), was translated into six languages and nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. A silent mother (2009) was awarded the 2011 Book Parts Prize for the best reading club book. What I had to keep quiet (2013) was adapted into a theatre play in Germany. The tax expert is her fifth novel.o

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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