A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I decided to read The Sorrow of Belgium as research for my current work in progress, a novel narrated in part by a boy recruited into the Flemish nationalist movement in the lead-up to the Second World War. Claus’ largely autobiographical novel – he was born in Bruges in 1929 – was recommended to me by several people as crucial reading for the period and subject matter. Never slow to justify the purchase of a new book in the name of “research”, I promptly bought myself a copy and promised myself that I would not read it until I had finished drafting my own project.
I failed miserably. I made the fatal error of reading the first line – “Dondeyne had hidden one of the seven Forbidden Books under his tunic and then coaxed Louis into coming along” – and from that moment I was hooked.
Louis is the novel’s narrator and Claus’ alter ego. In a twist of stylistic genius, Claus alternates between writing in the third person and the first – a decision that is at once risky and absolutely right for so personal a novel, a book that is in many ways about his own emergent sense of the power of words and storytelling. The shifts are seamless:
“He was sitting on a train, and for the first time in his life it occurred to him that a train, more so than the idea of a train, was a box so many feet high, so many feet long, so many feet wide, a fragile, futile, and above all simple thing on wheels. I could touch the ceiling of this carriage – who would have thought it? Only a moment ago I was in the playground, in the shadow of my grandfather, who is now lying on his deathbed.”
Louis’ story begins in 1939, when he is ten, and ends as an uneasy peace is being reintroduced to Europe. The narrative is episodic – there are no chapters – and spans Louis’ antics at convent school, the death of his infant brother, the outbreak of war, the erosion and repair of his parents’ marriage, a short-lived membership in the Hitler Youth, juvenile sexual forays, and his first attempts at writing fiction. His experiences are peppered with colourful characters: his collaborator father and philandering mother, a slew of mad aunts, uncles and grandparents, school friends, teachers and clergy, Allied soldiers, Nazis and Resistance fighters.
Most tellingly, there are no “good” or “bad” characters. Corruption is rampant, but necessary. Fact and rumour collide; the line dividing politics and mythology blurs. Humour, pathos, and irony punctuate the child’s voice, and, in time, the adolescent’s. Here, Louis scrambles to enter his first story into a magazine competition, justifying himself by lying to one of the judges:
“My brother died in a concentration camp,” said Louis. “He was an intellectual working for the Underground, and he never tasted the fruits of his clandestine labours.”
“Is this entry about his experience?”
“His own experience, yes, of course.”
“Het Laatste Nieuws would certainly be interested in that.”
“It doesn’t deal directly with the concentration camp. It’s rather…”
“Which concentration camp?”
“…symbolic. Uh, Neuengamme.” (I’ll be struck down for that. Till the blood runs. Terminal cancer. Starting with the intestines. Then it spreads all over.)
“It’s a good subject. The Belgian people are going to have to learn the facts. From the source.”
“He handed me the text before he was taken away. In a cattle truck. ‘Take good care of it, Louis,’ he said.”
“I thought his name was Louis.”
“He asked me to adopt his name. So as to save his life’s work after his death, to continue it. My real name is Maurice.”
Like a Breughel painting, The Sorrow of Belgium is busy, grotesque, hilarious and utterly compelling: an epic work that always manages to feel personal, and the undisputed masterwork of Claus’ lauded career. It is remarkable for its simplicity of style, honesty of telling, and the manner in which it completely immerses the reader in war-torn Belgium – terrifying, strange and so very human.
The Sorrow of Belgium; Hugo Claus (original Flemish title Het verdriet van België), Tusk Ivories 2002 (first published 1983) 603 pp. ISBN 1-58567-238-6