Book 88: Belgium (Flemish/Dutch) – De Intrede van Christus in Brussel = Christ’s Entry into Brussels (Dimitri VERHULST)
In recent years, when travelling abroad, it had struck me that I was having to explain ever more frequently that there was no civil war raging here. The disconnect between political discourse and civil life could hardly have been more obvious. Flemings and Walloons weren’t staring each other down with swords drawn; our bricklayers worked together on the same sites, and what they built stood nice and straight; the Mint Orchestra consisted of musicians from north and south, and nevertheless they could play La Finta Giardiniera in the same key; people married each other across the language borders, and in their households they fought the battle of doors and pans neither more nor less than anyone else, they found the same warmth, the same chill in each other’s arms. But the populist slogans of our loudest dog-whistlers gave some outside observes the opposite impression, and kept important investors away.
I had been intending to reserve Belgium in order to finally get around to reading that most prolific of thriller writers, Georges Simenon, but meanwhile I had stumbled onto this fascinating novel, and it became my choice.
It was no doubt inspired by fellow Belgian James Ensor’s famous Symbolist painting, “The Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1888”, although as Verhulst points out, the Holy Family would seem to have a special affinity with Belgium going by the number of their visitations (especially by the Virgin Mary).
Like the painting by Ensor (and Bosch before him) it has a deliciously misanthropic view of humanity. It gets off to a depressing, workaday, cynical start, not what you might expect for such an epoch-making event, with nondescript weather. The people of Brussels can speak every language – but won’t talk to one another. (And the Messiah’s return leads to a frantic search for an Aramaic speaker). Jesus’ second coming is pre-announced in the news feeds, but apparently no one believes it, certainly they don’t communicate it to anyone else. Ironically, the most worried about it seems to be the Church, over sins like priestly paedophilia.
Since the whole novel is taking the piss out of Brussels, I was expecting the Maneken Pis to put in a cameo appearance, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The Belgians’ self-deprecating nature stops the rest of the world (and Belgians themselves?) from realising what a wonderful country they’ve got. It was almost too unremittingly jaundiced for me, maybe too much for some.
If you don’t like sarcasm, steer away from this book. But in the end I loved it – the best satire I’ve read since Jonathan Swift. It is often very funny – such as the Life-of-Brian moment where despite his denials a hippie is mistaken for the returned Christ, is mobbed and ends up in an institution convinced of his divinity.
For such a slim novel, I learnt an enormous amount about Belgium (reality and stereotypes), which Verhulst calls ‘geography’s hypochondriac’.
VERHULST, Dimitri (1972 – ), De intrede van Christus in Brussel (in het jaar 2000 en oneffen ongeveer), Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Contact, 2011, ISBN 9789025437534
English title: Christ’s Entry into Brussels (in the year 2000 and something, or thereabouts), London, Portobello, 2014
And then the season we were in let us to keep ourselves apart no longer. In December, everything is flowering and everything smells lovely; everything is young: spring seems to join into summer, and the countryside, long waterlogged, long oppressed by sullen clouds, everywhere takes its revenge, bursts: the sky is never clearer, nor more resplendent: birds sing, they are drunk; joy is everywhere, everywhere it explodes and in every heart it resounds. It was that season, the beautiful season, which swelled my breast, and the tam-tam too, I confess, and the festive air of our walk; it was the beautiful season and everything that it contained – and that it did not contain – that it expanded profusely! – which made me dance with joy.
This was one of the first works of Francophone literature from Africa. It is perhaps not a very deep novel, but I found it a pleasant read. It certainly came as a relief after the last French novel I read, Les Racines du Yucca from Chad – much easier to read and much less boring. In fact it might be a good first novel to read in French for someone learning the language but wanting an adult book. It is based heavily on the author’s own life. It is the fairly ordinary story of a boy growing up in a traditional village, who is sent off to school in the capital Conakry and finally in France (against the opposition of his clinging mother). She was a sorcerer, in a good way – since the crocodile was her totem, she was immune from its attack. His father was a blacksmith. He later regrets not having asked about the local customs during his happy childhood in Guinea, for which he feels deep nostalgia. To tell the truth, nothing really out of the ordinary or exciting happens. What a relief after the tragic stories from Rwanda and South Sudan! Even the colonial situation (Guinea was still under French rule at the time) seems to have barely any influences. Not such an unusual story even in real life, and to tell the truth I’m surprised it’s still considered one of the classics of Francophone African literature, but still I enjoyed it.
LAYE, Camara (1928-1980), L’Enfant Noir, Paris, Plon, 2015, ISBN 978-2-266-17894-5
Translated into English as The Dark Child or The African Child.
Is murder unforgivable because the only person from whom rightful forgiveness could come is no longer there?
In 1994 I went on holiday in South America. I was totally shocked that in the short time I was away, up to a million people were massacred in an intentional genocide in faraway Rwanda. I still suffer a strange feeling of guilt over that.
This novel is the story of two characters struggling to deal with the trauma from that time. The young woman, Isaro, had to flee the country for France after her parents were murdered. She comes up with the ‘modest’ research project of interviewing all the survivors and putting their stories into one book. What she does come up with is a novel, which centres on the other main character, Niko – we don’t find out that he is only her creation until right at the end. Niko is a sociopath and a mute, who has banished himself to a nose-shaped island in a lake, populated by monkeys. While he was not popular, he was a peaceful blacksmith until the day the genocidal army came and he is forced to club to death another man who may – or may not- be his own father, or else both of them will be shot; and he must decide whether to die or become a murderer in a split second. He chooses to kill and to live, and becomes the enthusiastic leader of a band of thugs.
I would have loved to have had the inexplicable explained – that is, why the genocide happened and how apparently normal decent human beings could carry out such heartless brutality on those they had lived with peacefully. I didn’t feel that I did get it. Maybe it’s some disease of collective madness that infects a group. Before we look down on the Rwandans – or Germans – or Turks – or anyone else collectively, we need to remember that few of our countries or peoples haven’t committed injustices to others (certainly my country has); and if as individuals we are sure that we would never commit such atrocities – well, can anyone who hasn’t been guilty of cruelty to a cockroach, for example, ever be certain of that? All of us are guilty if we knew what was happening in a ‘faraway African country’ and didn’t care.
Nowadays, Rwanda is doing quite well economically, and is even very progressive in some respects (banning plastic bags and percentage of women in parliament). An astonishing number of victims have even forgiven their tormentors. It has come at the price of putting a blanket over much of what happened. Nowadays, officially, people can’t call themselves Tutsi or Hutu.
I can’t imagine what it must be like every day to see someone who murdered the whole rest of your family walking the streets. I can’t blame any country for deciding that, when a choice has to be made, reconciliation or at least peace is preferable to justice, but I wish we could have both – not only due process for those who ordered the crimes, but also for the torturers, the people with the machetes, and the bureaucrats.
GATORE, Gilbert (1981 – ),The Past Ahead, translated from French by Marjolijn de Jager, Global African Voices, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2012, ISBN 9780253006660
(Originally published as Le passé devant soi, Paris, Editions Phébus, 2008)
Cupcake adjusted the bindings of her skate skis with a focused fury. Steve was dead. Eight seasons she had spent on the ice, and risk of injury and death had always ridden beside her like a passenger who never speaks until it is too late, but this death had ‘wrong’ written all over it. She had been in McMurdo during the helicopter crash of 2003, and that was bad enough, even though no one died. And then there was that pestilent journalist a year ago. Hardly anyone knew him, but still his death had cut everyone to the quick. But a coworker? Dying like that? And through malice?
Here’s one out of the box (or the freezer?), a crime thriller set in Antarctica. Of course Antarctica has no permanent population, countries or even universally recognised territories, but people have been born there (unfortunately, no authors yet, I assume, although I can’t read Emperor Penguin) and one or two people who have lived there have written books – including this novel.
Its heroine, like the author (who visited Antarctica for obviously extensive research), is a geologist, which helps her to solve the crimes. No sooner has she flown in to McMurdo station than she learns that her boss has already been arrested on suspicion of a murder he apparently hadn’t committed, and flown off the continent, and that she could be also removed at any time (luckily for her, passages out can’t be arranged that quickly).
Some might find the amount of detail on Antarctic life, the environment and the science excessive and just want the story. I couldn’t imagine many thrillers spending much time on the characters getting dressed (an involved and life-saving procedure down there). But as for me, I totally loved all this detail, which was exactly what I was looking for. It feels very authentic and I felt that I really got to know the environment and the circumstances in which the scientists (’beakers’) and support staff live and work. And as an inveterate word collector I managed to acquire a small Antarctic vocabulary (a ‘fingie’ is a new arrival). The character was likeable and authentic (perhaps excepting her James Bond-like ability to drive anything on wheels – or tracks – at the drop of a hat!)
A few minor quibbles – the editing falls into a crevasse once or twice, and I can’t imagine these rough people not swearing a lot! The accent given to the Australian character was terrible, maybe closer to Scottish.
In Cold Pursuit is sadly out of print. I totally enjoyed it, also as a change from the fairly heavy classics and world novels I’ve been reading lately. Thanks to the Wollondilly Library (southwest of Sydney) and our wonderful inter-library loans librarian Anne for chasing down the copy for me.
ANDREWS, Sarah, In Cold Pursuit, New York, St Martin’s Press, 2007, ISBN 0-312-34253-5
But Priest’s blood is on my hands and under my fingernails, and his cord has been severed. I told myself that those cords would be cut by me or another. It didn’t matter who, because it was going to happen. We are mere instruments of fate, we soldiers. All those people were shot and would have been shot and we were the walking, running, screaming dead, but it matters that I killed them. The cup must be passed and the poison must be drunk, but that doesn’t mean you have to drink it. The cup was in my hands and I could have cast it back in their faces and died. That would have been better. Oh God, that would have been better. But I drank it. And I passed it and I took the communion of devils. What kind of God would listen to my prayers? Not in this field, not among the blood of devils. I have lived. I have been spared. There’s still time to escape.
We have all heard of countries terrorised and traumatised by the nightmarish, upside-down world of child soldiers, but to experience what it is like in reality – and to be one – you must read this book. Beneath the Darkening Sky covers many of the same ugly themes that we have seen (e.g. in Cambodia) and will see again in some other countries, but like them turns them into compulsive reading through the beautiful language of great literature.
South Sudan became the world’s newest country but has had little peace or good news even since then. The interminable (civil) war of this Christian/Animist south, with the oil resources, against northern, Muslim, Sudan for independence both devastated the land and prevented any development. But no sooner did it finally win freedom than the various ethnic groups started fighting among themselves.
The author was nine when rebel soldiers attacked his village and kidnapped all the children taller than an AK47 to become child soldiers. Tulba was an inch shorter; he eventually fled the country to live in Australia. But he wrote this brilliant first novel of what might have happened to him if fate had made him an inch taller.
Like the Khmer Rouge for example, the rebels claim to be creating Utopia but actually make only hell on earth. Obinna’s new life is a daily nightmare interspersed with dreaming. It is soaked in casual, self-defeating brutality. The most mercy people can expect (like his friend Priest, in the quote above) is a quick death. Obinna grows down, instead of up.
Among other horrors, the boys are used by the cowardly soldiers to walk in front of them through minefields. When one of them does step on a mine, the scene is described in movie-like slow motion (which felt like watching a crash test dummy flailing about in a car).
Like any great novel about a horrible time (similarly to In the Shadow of the Banyan, for Cambodia), the tragedy is not unrelieved. I found the fake ambush especially funny.
Traumatising as it is, I highly recommend this novel. It is narrated in short staccato sentences like machine gun fire. I can’t wait to read his second book, “When Elephants Fight”, and hope Tulba will be able to write more books.
While I was reading this, there was a documentary series on the Vietnam War on TV. I was struck by what one American Vietnam veteran said: “I only killed one person in Vietnam; the rest were objects.” This novel gives a devastating portrayal of the desensitisation of the killers, of the deadening, dehumanising objectification of death. As Obinna says: “They don’t get to choose to live and I don’t get to choose to kill”.
TULBA, Majok, Beneath the Darkening Sky, London, Oneworld, 2013 (first published by Penguin Australia, 2012), ISBN 978-1-78074-241-0
Today the sun has set. It will set again tomorrow. But you are not here to see it. That is the difference. Even the birds and the insects that sing, they sing the same way as they sang when you were here. But now that you are not here to hear them, that makes the difference. Suns will set, birds will sing, insects will sing, but the difference is in the ears that will hear them. Today your ears are not here to hear them with me. Your blood is not here to tell me what all the songs of the forests of the farm say.
‘Bones’ is the story of the vain search of a woman (Marita) for her son, gone to fight in the guerrilla war against the racist white Rhodesian regime that was to lead to Zimbabwe. Everyone seems to be obsessed with her. Her story is told by Janifa (who has been wooed by her son); the herbalist Marume; Chisaga, the white farmer’s cook (about whom we get a totally different impression from his own words than from Janifa’s); ‘the unknown woman’ at the mortuary who Marita tries to give a decent burial; and the more omnipresent view of ‘the spirits’. The farm owner is foul-mouthed and hated even if probably far from the worst that could have been pictured. What is might be his real name is never revealed, but he is called Manyepo “because you think we are always lying to you”.
The novel is all the more powerful because Hove doesn’t spell out or labour the differences between blacks and whites, or the history between them. They are there, but they are there for us to extract. Hove’s anger and revolutionary fervour are there and we feel them, but as if it were the heat from a furnace under the floor:
“A people that fears death will never enjoy freedom from the heavy chains of being called boys by people of the same age, men and women.”
If you expect a novel about a revolutionary war to be about men fighting the unjust regime, ‘Bones’ is not like that. It is about those left at home, and is told mainly through the women’s voices. And what shines through is that they are at least as heroic as the male soldiers. It is, as far as I can judge, another masterly success of a male writer writing about women with understanding, compassion and admiration.
The language of the novel, which is apparently rooted in Shona idiom, is quite wonderful, not poetic but as controlledX as poetry, majestic as a religious text but hypnotically readable, and scattered with delicious proverbs and phrases (I can’t tell if they are traditional or original), e.g. “A closed mouth is a cave in which to hide”. ‘Bones’ was yet another discovery of a great novel and a great writer who deserves far wider acclaim. One of the Heinemann African Writers Series, it is not very weighty (I read it in one day, coincidentally on Robert Mugabe’s 93rd birthday) but it is concentrated brilliance.
Published in Harare!
HOVE, Chenjerai (1956 – 2015): Bones, Harare: Baobab Books, 1988, ISBN 0-908311-03-6
She realized, suddenly, standing there, that all those years she had lived in that house, with the acres of bush all around her, and she had never penetrated into the trees, had never gone off the paths. And for all those years she had listened wearily, through the hot dry months, with her nerves prickling, to that terrible shrilling, and had never seen the beetles who made it. Lifting her eyes she saw she was standing in the full sun, that seemed so low she could reach up a hand and pluck it out of the sky: a big red sun, sullen with smoke, like a shining plow disc or a polished plate, ready for plucking. She reached up her hand; it brushed against a cluster of leaves, and something whirred away. With a little moan of horror she ran through the bushes and the grass, away back to the clearing. There she stood still, clutching at her throat.
Nobel laureate (2007). Doris Lessing is an amazing writer. The breadth of her writing genres is breathtaking. She was born in Persia (now Iran), grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which qualifies her to represent that defunct country, whose racisim would have been anathema to her, and later lived in Britain. Apart from needing to give Rhodesia some representation, as one of the countries that has existed during my lifetime, Lessing is simply too important to ignore, although modern Zimbabwe is so different that I wanted to choose a ‘Black’ writer to represent it (hence, ‘Bones’ by Chenjerai Hove).
This, her first novel, is a murder mystery which begins and ends with the crime, while all the rest of the book fleshes out what caused the killing. The victim, Mary, is a city girl who should never have left her satisfactory urban life but (due to the needling of her contemporaries) marries an eternally struggling farmer, Dick Turner, who seems congenitally immune to success, and she buries herself on his isolated farm. So isolated are they that she does not even know about the war. The (distant) neighbours despise these ‘poor whites’, who in turn hold themselves aloof from them. Dick treats his land a bit better than the other rapacious ‘Whites’, likewise his ‘Black’ labour force (although partly because of the difficulty of acquiring and holding onto them). But Mary becomes an ever more virulent racist – yet we can understand (although not sympathise) because we have seen how she has come to be this way. Despite this, she is drawn into a highly charged relationship with her final male servant (having driven off a string of predecessors), Moses, who she had once abused.
Mary’s mental disintegration stands as a symbol for the inevitable breakdown of the racist Rhodesian regime. Lessing masterfully describes her boring life, yet I couldn’t keep from eagerly turning the pages. I would definitely say this is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
LESSING, Doris (1919 -2013 ), The Grass is Singing, New York, HarperCollins, 2008, ISBN 9780061673740