THE CENTURION brings back the character Martinus Harinxma, who was the hero of Jan de Hartog’s novels THE CAPTAIN and THE COMMODORE. He is now retired and spends his time studying Roman history and traveling with his wife Sylvia. On one of their excursions, they are introduced to dowsing; and once Martinus gets over the stigma attached to it, he becomes obsessed with tracking down a fourth century centurion through the use of a pendulum. The novel is slow to begin, but once it swings from the contemporary world to a remarkable re-creation of Roman Britain it builds momentum.
The violent world of Roman Britain is poignantly described. The centurion’s son, Colonel Mellarius, is ordered to destroy a Welsh tribe that has been killing villagers. Martinus discovers that the centurion is probably a guiding spirit or maybe even himself transplanted out of linear time. He is haunted by a provocative line from T.S. Eliot: “old men ought to be explorers.” Martinus must come to terms with his own past as he seeks to determine what sort of future he can still make for himself. As the destinies of the centurion and Martinus seem to line up on a collision course, the novel takes on an even more psychic dimension.
The author wonderfully re-creates the ancient world and the people who inhabit it. Colonel Mellarius, because he is unusually kind to the enemy, is forced to kill himself by his own sword. The centurion--or is it Martinus?--looks at the kind of father he has been and what he could have done differently to avoid such an outcome. De Hartog explores man’s mystical nature through his portrait of an aging sea captain who finally triumphs against time.