This is another of those classic Belgian novels, a largely autobiographical account of a boy growing up in rural Flanders in the years just before, during and after the Second World War. I read it in the original Dutch, and at 715 pages I think that is the longest book I have ever read in a language other than English. It took me almost a month, though as you will have noticed, I managed to read one or two other books along the way as well.
I very much enjoyed the start of the book, and it was enough to keep me going to the end. The first third or so is set in the years leading up to the war; our protagonist (who veers between third-person “Louis” and first-person “ik”, sometimes several times on the same page) attends a school run by nuns carrying forth the mission of educating reluctant Catholic kids in a divided society on the verge of horrendous conflict, where he hangs out with a small group of friends with shared odd literary interests. Obviously I found nothing there that related to my own experience of growing up in Belfast during the Troubles at all. Especially the school. Though we did not have quite the same reverence for the British royals that Louis’ relatives have for their Belgian equivalents.
Then, of course, the Germans invade and occupy Belgium. Louis’ father, a printer whose politics have always been pro-Nazi, finds it surprisingly tough to make ends continue to meet with his heroes in charge. His mother finds her own accommodation with the Germans to get lipstick and sausages, and also to get the emotional satisfaction her husband is incapable of supplying. Louis himself has his horizons broadened by a Hitler Youth trip to Mecklenburg in eastern Germany, where he stays briefly with a much more affectionate family than his own; and then again when his father brings him to Brussels, a place of unspeakable pleasures, and he gets a magical afternoon of cultural awakening browsing in a library of confiscated “degenerate” books, while prisoners are being interrogated (and perhaps worse) in the courtyard outside.
So it’s a story of coming of age during the Second World War in Nazi Europe, like Die Blechtrommel, with the difference that there is no fantastical element, just a blurring of the narrator’s identity between “Louis” and “ik”. The monsters here are very human – not so much the Nazis, but the Belgians whose carefully designed and enclosing social structures allow horror to flourish in the school playground and in the bedroom and the living-room. By the end of the book, Louis is on his way to becoming a published author, using a Hebrew motto for his submitted manuscripts (his father having mumbled an apology for the Holocaust to a dumbfounded American soldier who happened to be Jewish). It is a very long book, and I can see why reluctant Belgian schoolkids may consider it a cruel and unusual punishment. But as an immigrant to Flanders, particularly coming from where I come from, I found it rather revealing; a bit like Portrait of the Artist, but fifty years later, in a different but similar country.
While I think one could do a decent enough English translation (and no doubt it has been done), there are a lot of nuances that would be difficult to carry over. In particular, the use of language – more or less thick Flemish rather than standard Dutch – is at the heart of the book. For instance, people here generally use the pronoun “ge” for the second person “you”; for those who first learned the Netherlandish variety of Dutch (as I did) it sounds odd – “ge” is used up north only to address God, or by Belgians and South Africans. Even weirder, the accusative form of “ge” is “u”, which is the polite pronoun in the Netherlands – even after fifteen years here, I still find it very disconcerting to hear parents and children use “u” to each other (rather than the Netherlandish familiar form, “je” or “jij”) in phrases like “dank u” (“thank you”) or “dit is voor u” (“this is for you”). Even in Flemish children’s literature, such as the popular comic series Suske en Wiske or translations of Tintin (translated literally as Kuifje, “Tufty”), characters generally use the alien northern “jij” to each other. Claus went for a more realist approach, and it matters to the story he tells.
That’s not all. Louis’ father’s pro-German poltiics, and his mother’s relationships with German soldiers, mean that there are a lot of conversations where key words are in German. For a Dutch speaker, this isn’t normally such a big deal, and indeed the German words in the book aren’t marked off from the Dutch in any way other than the nouns being capitalised. I think that would be impossible to carry through into any other language. (Indeed, I wonder how one might tackle a German translation of Het Verdriet van België.) There’s also the casual use of French (like me, Louis and his family live very close to what is now the Belgian linguistic border, the taalgrens; unlike me, they also live close to the frontier with France) which drops off during the book (rather like Buddenbrooks, but for different reasons). The occasional use of French, and the concomitant cultural cringe, is not unique to 1930s and 1940s Belgium, of course (see also War and Peace). But the nuances here are rather specific.
Anyway, I may try the English translation as well some day, in case there are things I missed as I struggled through the original version. But this was worth the struggle for now.