Zink, by David Van Reybrouck

Second paragraph of third section:

Voor Marie Rixen, het dienstmeisje in Düsseldorf, is alles pas begonnen met die fijne, zwarte knoopjes, of beter: is alles misgelopen bij die knoopjes, onherroepelijk misgelopen. Na enkele maanden zegt ze het hem, prevelend, ze liggen naast elkaar. Ineens is het gedaan met zijn lieve handen op haar huid, met zijn volle vochtige lippen in haar hals. Zijn mond is zijn mond niet meer, maar een zwarte vlek die brult als een van zijn staalovens. Uit zijn ogen. Uit zijn huis. Dat ze maar had moeten oppassen. Dat het een schande is. Is ze niet beschaamd? In zijn eigen huis? Hij als familieman! Trouwens, is het wel van hem? Hoe durft ze dat te beweren? Hij kent haar soort volk! En nog huilen ook?For Marie Rixen, the maid in Düsseldorf, everything just started with those fine, black buttons, or rather: everything went wrong with those buttons, went irrevocably wrong. After a few months she tells him, muttering, they are lying next to each other. Suddenly there’s an end to his sweet hands on her skin, his full moist lips on her neck. His mouth is no longer his mouth, but a black smudge roaring flame like one of his steel furnaces. Out of his sight. Out of his house. She should have been careful. It’s a scandal. Isn’t she ashamed? In his own house? He, a family man! By the way, is it his? How dare she say that? He knows her kind of people! And now the waterworks?

David Van Reybrouck is one of Belgium’s best known public intellectuals, and this was his essay commissioned for the annual Dutch language Book Week Essay in 2016. It’s the story of the peculiar enclave of Neutral Moresnet, a small territory run jointly by Prussia and the Netherlands, later Belgium and Germany, from 1815 until the first world war, noted for its zinc mine, casino, gin distilleries and freedom from neighbouring jurisdictions. It was annexed by Germany in the first world war, and by Belgium afterwards, and survives only in its boundary markers today.

Van Reybrouck tells the story of one of its inhabitants, born Joseph Rixen in 1903 but brought up as Emil Pauly, and explains the shifting concept of Neutral Moresnet’s identity through his story. There are also diversions to Esperanto, which claimed Moresnet as its world capital at one point, and to the last living person who was born there, Catharina Meessen. Overall it’s a fascinating glimpse at a forgotten corner of Western European history. You can get it here in Dutch and here in German (no English translation as far as I know).

This was the shortest unread book that I had acquired in 2016. Next on that pile, if I can find it, is God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, by Rupert Shortt.