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Book 97: Jordan (English) – The Cry of the Dove (Fadia FAQIR)



I woke up early in the morning, washed and changed, had group breakfast with the nuns, then went for a long walk, down the valley, then up the mountain. My only companions were the amulet hanging around my neck and my reed pipe. I would watch how the sea woke up when touched by the morning light, its colours changing from grey, to coral, to gold, then to turquoise like my grandmother’s necklace, which was a string of beads encased by silver. The sun would fight the darkness of the sea. The sunlight would win the day, filling the air with light. The dark-blue sea, exhausted, grew mossy green around the edges.

The heroine Salma is a Jordanian Bedouin woman. She committed what was in her society an unforgivable sin: she had sex outside marriage and became pregnant, and was subsequently disowned by her own family. She is placed under protective custody, and her own girl is taken from her. Her life is under constant threat of what I believe should be called a dishonour killing (since for me it brings nothing but shame to the murderer’s family and society).

She seems to be able to find no happiness in her life. She feels hopeless, despairing, and deracinated She calls herself “a rootless wind-blown desert weed.” In exile, Salma has a bleak, jaundiced and negative view of England (and of Jordan) – she doesn’t really seem to try to fit in. She is nowhere at home. She seems to be constantly miserable and even appears to have a death wish.

Maybe the only happiness she ever found was in the half-way house of Lebanon (as in the quote above).

Salma is continually obsessed with her lost girl (what about her boy and her husband?) and finally goes back to find her. Without giving anything away, somehow the novel’s ending seemed to me to be impossible – but probable. 

For me one of the best things about the book is the beautiful cover – a gorgeous blue mosque with a lonely woman. One of the reasons I avoid e-books…

Like Salma, the author Fadia Faqir also grew up in Jordan and moved to England. Salma has both a Jordanian/Lebanese past and an English present, which alternately come together but are not totally stitched – there are patches missing (such as the moment when she falls in love in England). I also felt that as a learner, Salma’s ‘pidgin’ English was not believable. My apologies for harping on this theme, but I get constantly annoyed when authors and filmmakers try to portray the speech of characters who have English as a second language or are learners as being fluent, or making unlikely mistakes, and when there are no communication difficulties between speakers of different languages (even with aliens!)

However, I don’t want to be too critical of a book that was touching and insightful. It is definitely worth reading.



Fadia (al-)Faqir فادية الفقير‎ (1956 – ), The Cry of the Dove, New York, Black Cat, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8021-7040-8

Book 96: Czech Rep. (English) – The Good Soldier Švejk = Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka (Jaroslav HAŠEK)


The members of the commission… were remarkably divided in their conclusions about Švejk. Half of them insisted that Švejk was a ‘half-wit’, while the other half insisted he was a scoundrel who was trying to make fun of the war.
’It’ll be a bloody miracle,’ roared the chairman of the commission at Švejk, ‘if we don’t get the better of you.’
Švejk looked at the whole commission with the godlike composure of an innocent child.
The senior staff doctor came up close to Švejk:
’I’d like to know, you swine, what you’re thinking about now?’
’Humbly report, sir, I don’t think at all.’
’Himmeldonnerwetter,’ bawled one of the members of the commission, rattling his sabre. ‘So he doesn’t think at all. Why in God’s name don’t you think, you Siamese elephant?’
’Humbly report, I don’t think because that’s forbidden to soldiers on duty.’

The commission’s dilemma about the good soldier Švejk is also our dilemma. It’s impossible to know which Švejk is the real one. What is beyond doubt is that he became one of the greatest and most lovable characters in literature.
I don’t think there’s any need for a spoiler alert that the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost the First World War and was soon to be no more; and after reading this hilarious account of its wartime activities there’s no need to wonder why.
It always remains ambiguous as to whether Švejk is a pure idiot or hard at work sabotaging the war effort.
He spends the war ‘trying to catch up with his battalion’ – or is he evading the war? And the same goes for his people – the Czechs were marched off by their Austrian and Hungarian masters to a war they had no interest in winning; it was not their empire. A lieutenant compares being Czech to being a member of a secret organisation. Czechoslovakia was one of the many captive nations that escaped when it disintegrated in 1918.
Švejk is always loitering around the periphery of the war, but that doesn’t stop him from changing its course.
Like Catch-22, the novel satirises the ridiculousness of the army system, if anyone should actually try to take it seriously. And I wonder if he inspired Forrest Gump?
Some of my favourite moments were the ciphers debacle, the blown up chauffeur who goes to army heaven, the army poster that Švejk takes literally, the woman whose every whim he obeys… No matter what the situation, Švejk has a story to tell and at one time even when asleep answers ‘Present!’ and starts to tell another tale, like that other great Czech invention, the robot…
Hašek died before finishing his masterpiece; but I like to think the war would have finished just as Švejk finally rejoined his batallion.

HAŠEK, Jaroslav (1883 – 1923), The Good Soldier Švejk and his fortunes in the world war, translated by Cecil Parrott, London, Penguin Classics, 2000, ISBN 978-0-140-44991-4
(originally published in Czech, 1926)

Book 95: Burundi (French) – Baho! (Roland RUGERO)


Stomach rumblings tore Nyamuragi straight out of his soliloquy. He is trying to find some way to relieve them, right now. To tell the truth, he doesn’t like it when it is shouting down there, deep down inside of him… that promises some hard hygienic work. And hunger, of course.
Nyamurangi the Mute admits that he had drunk too much water this morning, that’s why it was churning away under his jacket, furiously and chaotically.
Impossible to relax beside the stream; it’s a public place. But his intestines are seething. He has to do it quickly! Where should he go to do it? To relieve himself? If only he was on the other side of the hill, near his own place.
The call of his stomach made itself felt more insistently. His look became more imploring: some place! Just a little one! The urgency of his need deforms his facial features. In a single bound, he flings himself at young Kigeme, just as she was putting the 10 litre can onto her head to carry it home – Kigeme, who sees this constantly silent and solitary man smash into her.
Into the young girl’s memory, images of her friend raped a few weeks ago instantly surge. She had spoken to her about this fixed, flaming look, this furrowed forehead, these hands which are laid onto you without warning, with violence and envy… Her friend had told her her to scream if she was assaulted.
As for her, she is fourteen, twelve years fewer than Nyamuragi. She drops the can from her head, so she can struggle, compulsively pressing her dress to herself, a huddling, fearful, frightened little girl, lost. She struggles, while this is all surging through her head. She resists this imperious grasp pulling her away from the stream to impel her who knows where…
“Ni ibiki?” “What is it?” she asks. She sees the mute holding his crutch, hears the rumbling with gusto…
And suddenly, in the silence of this morning stained by the struggle, the cry goes out, strident, high and stamped with such fright: “Mfasha!” “Help me!”

[my translation]

Not long we had an incident of mob violence in Greece, now here is another lynching in Burundi.
Burundi is in some ways almost a twin of Rwanda, whose situation is much better known. Both were Belgian colonies, had a population divided into Hutu and Tutsi, and Burundi’s language Kirundi is very close to Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda. In fact, the 1994 plane crash that killed Rwanda’s president, marking the start of the genocide there, also killed Burundi’s president and led to similar strife there.
Baho! itself is a ‘Greek tragedy’. A mute shepherd, Nyamuragi, suddenly needs to go to the toilet. He signs (rather graphically) to a young girl, Kigeme, to lead him to the nearest place for him to go. But the society has been so traumatised by violence, both against women (there has been a series of rapes) and in general, that any innocent act risks being misunderstood. The girl cries out for help, and Nyamuragi runs away, which ‘proves’ his guilt in the eyes of the community. A lynch mob follows and captures him. Hauled before a kangaroo court, Nyamuragi ends up condemning himself, or being condemned by language – he wanted to say ‘ego’ (’yes’) but could only pronounce ‘ejo’ (’tomorrow/yesterday’ – interesting that Kirundi uses the same word for both, like Hindi for example, and the Burundians apparently have a similar concept of the circularity of time to the Hindus). He is so traumatised and alienated that he doesn’t care enough to explain himself to others, even if he could, or even to save himself.
The novel well captures the fright of ‘the other’ that can lead to genocide, racism, or at least injustice from misunderstanding or just distancing. Nyamuragi himself has had both his parents massacred when he was 14, and he finally becomes mute (although he never really wanted to speak), having lost all faith in humanity.
It would be nice to be able to say that the men ‘defending’ Kigeme were trying to protect her, but they seem to see the issue as more of a property crime – women being the property. It is actually not a fair world for women – those who speak up are abused by the men.
If there is a glimmer of hope, it is that those in the silent majority may act against the preachers of hate.
The book is sprinkled with bits of Kirundi, which looks like a lovely language – I just wish they were translated! – and some great proverbs.
This is a short but powerful and thought-provoking novel from a small country that has itself gone through so much violence and vitriol. Although the writing is sometimes a bit unpolished, on the whole it is very thought-provoking. At the time I was reading this novel, the ‘Me Too’ movement was big in the news. Since I read it, it has been translated into English. It deserves a much wider readership!



RUGERO, Roland (1986 – ): Baho!, La Roque d’Anthéron, Vents d’ailleurs, 2012, ISBN 978-2-911412-99-8

Book 94: Greece (English and French) – Zorba the Greek (Alexis Zorba) = Βίος και Πολιτεία του Αλέξη Ζορμπά (Nikos KAZANTZAKIS)

He threw himself into the dance, clapping his hands, leaping and pirouetting in the air, falling on to his knees, leaping again with his legs tucked up – it was as if he were made of rubber. He suddenly made tremendous bounds into the air, as if he wished to conquer the laws of nature and fly away. One felt that in this old body of his there was a soul struggling to carry away this flesh and cast itself like a meteor into the darkness. It shook the body which fell back to earth, since it could not stay very long in the air; it shook it again piteously, this time a little higher, but the poor body fell again, breathless.

 

Many people (myself included) have a friend who is their exact opposite, a yang to a yin, someone who is stimulating to talk to and observe precisely because they think and act differently to ourselves. Zorba the Greek is that friend to the narrator, who is a thinly disguised Kazantzakis.
This must be one of the most absorbing portraits of a people, and of a man (who is the apotheosis of that people), in literature.
The bookish narrator, Kazantzakis’ alter ego, learns to live for the moment (what we would now call mindfulness?), and teaches the man he teasingly calls the ‘bookworm’ to ‘dance’. He is always needling the narrator about his ‘books’. Zorba teaches him to understand himself, and the importance of happiness.
It has to be said that he is not always admirable, but he seems always captivating. Zorba only dabbles in being a capitalist (first mining then raping a forest) – but his heart isn’t in this get-rich-quick project (maybe this is symbolic of the Greek economy?) He is like some ancient Greek hero (he is so like Odysseus!) or even god (such as Zeus) – both admirable and flawed (he has even committed atrocities).
He cheats some monks in order to ‘acquire’ a forest to fell. (Isn’t Greece already deforested enough?) Zorba never seems untrue to his nature. He lives for the moment, and the day – nothing is permanent (Kazantzakis’ Buddhist subtext is interesting for such a Christian country). The narrator is interested in Buddhism and has some of its cool detachment but can’t help but be drawn to his charismatic, hedonist friend. Zorba is a mixture of a child, a philosopher, a sensual hedonist, and an iconoclast. He is contradictory, extraordinary, but always believable. He has been everything: (according to himself) a: quarry-man, miner, peddler, potter, comitadji, santuri-player, passa-tempo hawker, blacksmith, smuggler; has married several times, been imprisoned, travelled everywhere… He retains the sense of wonder at everything that the first man must have had, or a child. He asks simple yet profound questions about it like an ancient Greek philosopher.. He is comic, philosophical, brave, sensuous. and a wonderful story-teller.
One of my favourite scenes was the funny expedition up to a monastery. Their shared business venture all ends in ‘the full catastrophe’, also very funny, but somehow in the end it doesn’t matter very much…

Yes, but…
I can’t agree with Zorba’s anti-learning (and, by implication, Kazantzakis’ equivocation about it). If he didn’t despise book-learning he wouldn’t have had to try to reinvent geometry to find ropeway angle. After all, the Greeks themselves are famous since ancient times for their prowess in geometry.

Much as I totally loved the book, I have to admit that the 1964 movie was better in one way – because the narrator is changed from an urban Greek to a repressed Englishman, which makes the contrast between him and Zorba even more startling. So it is a case of the Greek Vs the Geek. (From his amazing performance, it is impossible to believe Anthony Quinn as Zorba isn’t a Greek!)

I was fascinated to find that the larger-than-life Zorba was based on a real friend of Kazantzakis, Alexis Zorbas. According to an interesting (but hero-worshipping) study (1), most of the incidents in the novel – the plot to despoil the monastery forest, the dilettante mine, the trip to communist Russia, the death in the Balkans – were accurate, as was the character of Zorba(s) (and of the narrator/Kazantzakis). The chronology was different, and there were a few other changes (such as their initial meeting).
I loved this novel so much that no sooner had I finished it than I started reading it again. It has added itself to my faves list.

 

KAZANTZAKIS, Nikos (1883 – 1957), Zorba the Greek, translated into English by Carl Wildman, London, Faber and Faber, 2008, ISBN 978-0-571-24170-5
KAZANTZAKI, Nikos: Alexis Zorba, translated into French by Yvonne Gauthier, Paris, Pocket, 1981, ISBN 3-266-02311-X
Originally published in Greek 1946

(1) ANAPLIOTES, John: The Real Zorbas and Nikos Kazantzakis, translated by Dr. Lewis A. Richards, Amsterdam, Adolf M. Hakkert, 1978

Vietnam (English) – The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh NGUYEN)

Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang  with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.

 

I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.

Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.

 

NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)

Book 93: Bolivia (Spanish) – Palacio Quemado = Burnt Palace (Edmundo Paz Soldán)

The years were passing. Sometimes I remembered how my re-encounter with La Paz had been, when, at the end of the eighties, I came to study history at San Andrés. I was struck by the colour of the heights, between ochre and reddish, a limestone conformation that hinted that we were in a place little given to the somnolent manifestations of routine, and the snowy majesty of Illimani dominating the city from the distance…

 

[my translation]

Sometimes this project, at least the reading in the original language, seems like a struggle between encouragement and discouragement. Yet again, after the disillusionment with my Spanish when struggling to read Tres Tristes Tigres (for Cuba), comes an easy and enjoyable novel from Bolivia which restores my faith in my language ability. The same happened not long ago when Guinea followed Chad in French. It makes me hope that maybe it’s not me, it’s the books.
Oscar is obsessed with the presidential palace. As a boy he frequented the Palacio Quemado (the Burnt Palace), a labyrinthine, disorienting building, the symbol of the country’s lost governments, which received its strange name from being almost totally destroyed in an 1875 revolt. His brother Felipe had died there, giving him another level of mystery to penetrate.
His father worked in the Palacio Quemado as dictator Banzer’s Information Minister, and he himself ends up in the press office concocting inspiring speeches that he doesn’t believe in for the president. It is a moot point what he does believe in, if anything. For him the speeches are virtually only works of art, not something that represents life and death to the people. Nevertheless he seems to think that if only his speeches were true, Bolivia would be saved. The compassionate speech that he writes for the president doesn’t match Canedo’s body language, its failure is all down to him. Oscar turns out to be out of sync with both Canedo (who is a lame duck less than a year into his presidency) on the one hand and the people on the other (who are in a tax revolt).
His relation with Natalia, who also works in the government, is ambiguous, like the one he has with the government itself. She tries to open his eyes to how corrupt political life really is. When he goes into a slum the people there intimidate him for his supposed support of the government. Oscar’s own sister is on the opposite side of politics.
Palacio Quemado is a great look inside the unfortunate side of Bolivian politics, and highly recommended. Unfortunately I don’t think it has been translated into English.

 

PAZ SOLDAN, Edmundo (1967 – ), Edmundo, Palacio Quemado, Miami, Alfaguara, 2006, ISBN 978-1-59820-546-3

Book 91: Haiti (French) – Hadriana dans tous mes rêves = Hadriana in all my dreams (René DEPESTRE)

I died on the evening of the most beautiful day in my life: I died on the evening of my wedding in the Saint-Philippe-&-Saint-Jacques Church. Everyone believed that I had been struck by lightning at the sacramental Yes which had gushed out of my guts. It was said that I had been carried away by the fire of my consent, so powerful and true was it. I was supposed to have been hit by my own bridal thunderbolt.

 

[my translation]

 

Now we are in Haiti and in the world of voodoo, which originated in Benin, our last country! In 1938’s Haiti, a young French bride, Hadriana, dies at the very moment of making her marriage vow to Hector Danoze in church. Her death provokes a religious tug-of-war between the ‘enemy brothers’ of the orthodox Catholic church and the adherents of voodoo spiritualism, a microcosm of the religious situation in Haiti as a whole.

There is a forest butterfly, manipulated by a secret society, which poisons virgins and turns them into zombies. It poisoned the lemonade at her wedding. A sorcerer is believed to have taken her corpse out of the cemetery to make use of it.

Will she escape?

The tale is told by Hadriana herself, including her experiences after becoming a zombie! I had always ridiculed tales of zombies, but reading this beautifully written tale from Haiti where they are deeply embedded in religious belief – as with vampires, after reading Mary Shelley’s Dracula – changed my thoughts (to some extent…) Zombies are carefully (almost scientifically) described as people who display all the symptoms of clinical death, but are still able to use their mental faculties. After burial they are raised by a sorcerer to be subjected to forced labour in the fields (zombie-jardin) or an urban workshop (zombie-z’outil).

There is some wonderful writing, such as the lovely description of the butterfly-colourful local buses, tap-taps.

You could take the symbolism further and see Haiti (once the richest place in the Western Hemisphere) as a whole as the beautiful, promising woman who has fallen into zombiedom. On the whole, a lovely, disquieting book.

 

DEPESTRE, René (1926 – ), Hadriana dans tous mes rêves = Hadriana in all my dreams, Barcelona, Gallimard, 1988, ISBN 978-2-07-038272-9

English translation:

DEPESTRE, René, Hadriana in All My Dreams, translated by Kaiama L. Glover, NY, Akaschic Books, ISBN 9781617755330

Book 90: Benin (French) – Doguicimi (Paul HAZOUMÉ)

 

Convinced that all women, even those who seem truly attached to their husbands or determined never to let themselves be dishonoured, can be seduced, that those who remain indifferent to the first manifestations of love by a man, insensible to beauty, to the birth or standing of a would-be lover, deaf to his supplications or to the language of rich presents, would be unable to resist the charm of philtres. Vidaho had successively put everything into play in order to conquer Doguicimi.

[my translation]

 

When it came time to read my novel from Benin, I was thrown into a slight panic when I realised that what I had bought was not the novel I had chosen, Doguicimi by Paul Hazoumé, but a collection of literary essays on it! The novel itself seemed to be out of print, at least in French. If I was to go reading countries in order, I’d have to wait while I got a copy of the actual novel (or another one). One of the many perils of ordering books online. (Not long before, I had ended up with an Armenian book with the right title, but that turned out to be a collection of short stories, not the novel I wanted). Finally my second-hand copy arrived, covered in obscure pencil notes that I had to erase before I could read it. But I did have my chosen book.

Set in the old kingdom of Dahomey, it tells the story of how the king is so determined to go to war that he ignores the ancestors (whose wishes are transmitted via the ‘devins’ – soothsayers). His advisor Toffa is captured in the resultant debacle and is treated by definition as a traitor. Toffa’s wife is the feisty Doguicimi. Everyone is surprised that she doesn’t get done away with for speaking out, but it turns out Vidaho, the heir to the throne, has become secretly enamored of her and becomes obsessed with getting her, while Doguicimi remains steadfastly loyal to her captive husband at great personal risk till her horrible self-sacrifice. Personally, I found it hard to understand why she was so attached to him considering the way he had treated her! I suppose it is tradition and the need to be respected; perhaps her name (which is explained halfway through to mean something like ‘cite me as an example’ has something to do with it.

The people’s opinions about the Whites, who are starting their encroachment on the region, are fascinating – what the latter see as their strengths, the former see as their weaknesses. There is obviously what we would now call racism from both sides, but it is easy to understand the feeling against outsiders trying to take control of their land. By modern standards, the arrogance of the ruling class, especially, of Dahomey comes off as unpleasant.

It took me a long time to read (510 pages, plus rubbing out time!) but I learnt a fascinating amount about the culture of ancient Dahomey (renamed Benin after independence) from this book. It is a classic of early indigenous African writing and a rare chance to see this time through their eyes.

 

HAZOUMÉ, Paul (1890 – 1980), Doguicimi, Paris?, Francopoche, 1978, ISBN 978-2706806711

English translation:

HAZOUMÉ, Paul, Doguicimi: The First Dahomean Novel, translated from French by Richard Bjornson, Washington DC, Three Continents, 1990, ISBN 9780894104060

Book 89: Tunisia (French) – La Montagne du Lion = Lion Mountain (Mustapha TLILI) (مصطفى التليلي))

That happened one especially torrid summer Saturday. The embers of the afternoon had died down. The setting sun, red and immense, sank slowly but inexorably behind the Mountain, in a farewell full of passion and infinite sadness. The entire universe was engulfed in a light of dusty ochre and blood.

 

[my translation]

 

Strong-willed, religious Horïa lives alone and isolated with her old black servant Sââd, getting her only consolation by contemplating the view of Lion Mountain above. Her eldest son has gone to an America she can’t begin to imagine, her youngest is off fighting somewhere for who knows what (he is accused of being a terrorist). As she comes to discover, his letters had not been delivered to her for years. But she is about to lose her view of the mountain to a planned tourist centre (the concept of tourism is equally foreign to her). What right do they have? In a scenario familiar to people all round the world (such as the Amazon Indians having their land stolen right now), how do you stop ‘development’ from taking your land and destroying your way of life, when everyone knows that it’s your land, but you have no legal document to prove it according to the interlopers?
In the novel, tourists discover the mountain, and make a film and an illustrated book about it. When the President hears about this, he is ashamed and wants to develop a tourist complex there. Everyone else blames Horïa for hindering prosperity; even the imam avoids her. She is an ‘obstacle to progress’, considered a fool and senile.
Sââd had undergone torture for not wanting to join the Party. Horïa is equanimous and tries to keep to her own life, and concentrates on weaving her qilims, asking him to stay silent. Nevertheless, it all ends in a blaze of violence.
This is a simple but great and passionate novel. It was banned in Tunisia.

 

TLILI, Mustapha (1937-2017), La montagne du lion, Mesnil-sur-l’Estrée, Gallimard, 1988, ISBN 2-07-071395-4

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.

 

[My translation]

 

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