"I, Jeronimus, am a man of phials, a measurer of powders on bronze scales, a potion brewer, an opium and arsenic merchant. The primped and perfumed Amsterdam burghers came to me in droves requiring cures for fevers, love balms, the miscarriage of a bastard child, and, of course, poisons. Ah, poisons."
So speaks Jeronimus Cornelisz, a thirty-year-old apothecary who transforms before our eyes into a murderous madman.
The Company is a novel based on the 1629 voyage of the Dutch East India Company flagship Batavia, bound for the colonies with a cargo of untold riches. Among the passengers is Cornelisz, a man ousted from polite society by sordid rumors of necromancy. Corrupt to the very marrow of his soul, Cornelisz considers himself God's equal, the rightful heir to gold, silver -- even another man's wife. So twisted is he by lust and greed that he incites a mutiny, running the ship aground on a reef.
All is lost -- the ship is wrecked, its passengers dying, the treasure trashed at the bottom of the sea. "The apothecary will heal us," the survivors pray, believing themselves lucky to be alive. In the name of benevolence, Cornelisz seizes command of their island refuge. The brave castaways stir with hope -- until the killing begins. For forty frenzied days, Cornelisz decides who shall live and who shall die, leaving his victims with just one wish -- that they had gone down with the ship.
Soaked with the blood of the innocent and the wicked, The Company plunges, with the weight of history, deep into the heart of darkness.
Like The Lord of the Flies, to which it will inevitably be compared, this fiction debut about the 1629 wreck of the Batavia off the coast of Australia suggests that Robinson Crusoe was lucky to be marooned alone. In the mid-1600s, the Dutch East India Company sponsored a fleet of merchant ships sailing for the Dutch colonies (today's Indonesia). The fleet's flagship, the Batavia, was carrying "precious artifacts to trade with plump sultans of Mogul courts" when it struck a reef. The narrator of this fictionalized version of the well-known story is Jeronimus Cornelisz, a 30-year-old apothecary forced to flee Amsterdam after discovery of his participation in "secret pagan rites." After the passengers are offloaded to a barren island, the Commandeur (the company's chief representative) and the skipper sail off in the one usable lifeboat to seek rescue. In their absence, Cornelisz, who believes himself fated to "receive fortunes and be elected an emperor among men," and whose hysterical inability to leave the foundering ship until several days have elapsed is mistaken for chivalry, becomes leader. Before long, he exploits the survivors' trust and establishes a reign of terror. The present-tense, first-person narrative places the reader squarely inside Cornelisz's twisted mind; obtuse and self-absorbed, he is increasingly unreliable and deranged. Suspense lies in guessing at how long Cornelisz will last and how far he will go with bloodshed and debauchery. A mixture of classic sea-adventure yarn and grisly thriller, the book is unlikely to do as well here as it did in Australia, where it was a bestseller and prize winner, but its psychopathic narrator seems a natural for a Hollywood movie.