Inspired by Peter Paul Rubens’ painting, “Four Heads of a Negro,” author Ken Greenhall imagines what the life of the painter’s model might have been like in an alien culture. He captures this perfectly. To Lenoir, the Dutch are a deranged people, with strange-beliefs and customs, living in a dispiriting, flat, wet land. He thinks they are being punished for believing in only one god. He cannot understand their obsession with time, with money, with numbers, with the absurdities of Calvinism and Roman Catholicism. Lenoir can neither read, write, nor count, and he is suspicious an art that can create slips of paper saying that one man belongs to another. Sought after as a model for his beauty, he poses for Rembrandt, even though he believes that a person disturbs part of his soul when he is represented in a painting.
Lenoir is a shrewd observer and he takes good note of the three obsessions that rule Amsterdam: art, sex, and business. He has a keen eye for hypocrisy and double-dealing, and has many opportunities to observe it in the behavior of his master, Dom Twee. Twee treats Lenoir affectionately, but only as a man might indulge a child. The two of them go through a series of escapades together. When falsely accused of murder, they flee Amsterdam, falling in with a traveling Italian Commedia del Arte troupe, and ending up in Antwerp, where Lenoir is befriended by Rubens. By the end of the novel Lenoir has made peace with his fate and goes his way gently amongst people who no longer seem quite as mad as they did in the beginning.