There are certain much-quoted pieces of advice that were spoken or penned by great writers and intended to set the authors of the next generation on the right path. Maxim Gorki, for example, advised the young Isaac Babel to ‘get out and about more’ and Stéphane Mallarmé recommended that his disciple Paul Valéry seek solitude at the beginning of his career as a poet: ‘Quant à des conseils, seul en donne la solitude.’ And during an evening devoted to war reporting I once heard the famous CNN journalist Peter Arnett preach his personal professional creed to his Dutch colleague Raymond van den Boogaard: ‘Save your ass and get the story back.’
All of which are good, if sometimes mutually contradictory, bits of advice. So far, however, Lieve Joris (1953-) would appear to have been able to observe all three of these recommendations in her work to a significant degree. She has been ‘out and about’, in the Arabic world, in Congo, in Hungary, in Egypt, in Syria, in Mali. Every time she has managed to return safely, always bringing a story with her. And every time she has also been able to put her story down on paper in the solitude of her study, from her debut – The Gulf (De Golf, 1986), twenty years ago now, to her new book The Rebels’ Hour (Het uur van de rebellen, 2006). Anyone inclined to explore her output over the last two decades, however, will quickly realise that as a writer she has completely ignored one well-known piece of authorial advice, perhaps the most famous recommendation of all. As Leo Tolstoy put it: ‘If you want to deal with universal themes, write about your own village.’
Lieve Joris’ own village is Neerpelt, a dusty, secluded little town in Belgian Limburg, cut through by the Bocholt-Herentals canal and the little river Dommel, and a place that has gone almost completely unmentioned in the ten or so books she has published to date. One would almost be tempted to say that the author has consciously and with immense tenacity turned Tolstoy’s advice on its head: if you want to deal with universal themes, write about someone else’s village.
The official website of the municipality of Neerpelt gives the town’s motto as ‘convivial, dynamic, green and young’, not exactly the environment Lieve Joris has sought out by preference as the backdrop to two decades of writing. It would be hard to describe Damascus under the watchful eye of the secret police as ‘convivial’, ‘dynamic’ would be something of an understatement when referring to years of African war, if there is anything ‘green’ in the Arab Gulf States it’s the oil revenue dollars and the velvet revolution in Hungary was anything but ‘young’.
Lieve Joris’ personal quest through decades of writing and several books has been the search for universal themes as they manifest themselves in a variety of different cities, regions and countries. Tourists tend to pass over such themes, literally, in their aeroplanes, heading towards the next holiday destination. Even the serious traveller risks missing them, since reality is, was, and always will be a primordial forest of which only the fringes are visible. So what is a writer to do? In the last analysis, it’s still someone else’s village. It takes time to learn your way round, you don’t know the unwritten rules, and the village’s history is not part of you. How can you write both personally and universally on a world that isn’t yours?
I believe it is on this point that Lieve Joris proves her quality as a writer, and The Rebels’ Hour is an admirable example of her mastery. The following statement appears at the beginning of the book by way of explanation: ‘This book is based on existing characters, situations and places, without ever matching them completely.’ Such a phrase would not be out of place at the beginning of a literary novel, and is in fact to be found in many. Take the statement from the opening pages of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, for example: ‘While some of the characters who appear in this book are based on historical figures and while many of the areas described (…) exist, it is important to stress that this story is a fiction (…).’ The boundary between Lieve Joris’ methodological explanation and that of Michael Ondaatje would appear – in principle – to reflect the difference between non-fiction and fiction, but in fact it is so narrow that the reader has to be careful not to overlook it, because there is another important difference at stake.
The Rebels’ Hour describes the fortunes of a young soldier named Assani who comes from the eastern part of the immeasurable Congo, the Central African border region with Rwanda and Burundi. This is where he was born, half orphaned, on February 2, 1967. His country’s capital is Kinshasa, roughly 1,700 kilometres to the west. Yes, spell it out: seventeen hundred kilometres. By European standards it’s incomprehensible. It’s like being born in Neerpelt and having your country’s government in the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
Assani is African, his nationality Congolese, but in terms of ethnic background he is a Tutsi, and his tribe, just to complicate matters further, is the Mulenge. Half a life story is hidden in this set of identities, the other half is thrust upon him by history, a history of dictatorship, corruption, civil war, oppression, tribal feuds, rebellions, genocide, three African wars, poverty, hunger and an unlimited supply of arms.
The major difference between the work of Lieve Joris and that of fiction-writers who base their narratives on historical facts is that the history in The Rebels’ Hour is still very far from being history. Rather it is current affairs, hot off the press. The main character of this book is at constant risk of his life. His existence is one of extremes, from fugitive rebel to senior officer in the Congolese army. Even after the much-praised democratic elections in his country, the first in over forty years, the actual men and women pictured for us along with Assani are still prey to the most immense political and human uncertainty. The way in which Lieve Joris effectively and authentically presents the main character of her book, based on years of meetings and conversations and complete with a world of memories, thoughts and fears, goes far beyond the convention among fiction writers of briefly exploring the locations they plan to employ in their novels. What Lieve Joris does is not simply field research, it is literary vivisection on history as it is being made.
The result of this vivisection – and this is what makes her relationship with writers of literary fiction so interesting – is put together with the most literary of means: characters, a variety of narrative perspectives, flashbacks and flash forwards, narrated time passing in a way that makes development of the various characters both visible and tangible. To paraphrase the CNN motto: The Rebels’ Hour is ‘Literature as it happens’.
The above-mentioned Peter Arnett, who for 35 years was the eyes and ears of the world and witnessed wars and conflicts from Vietnam to the first Gulf War, had something else to say during his conversation with Raymond van den Boogaard in Amsterdam. Arnett made a distinction between wars that interested him and wars that didn’t, and as a salient example of an unimportant war he made reference to that between ‘the Hutsis and the Tutsis’. Coming from him, it sounded like a reference to a comic film: the Hutsis and the Tutsis. The conversation took place in De Rode Hoed on April 27, 1994. At that very moment one of the most brutal genocides in twentieth-century world history had already been in full swing for three weeks; it had begun, to be precise, on April 6. In little more than three months, some 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by Hutu militia, with their bare hands, with clubs and machetes, sometimes as many as 10,000 on a single day. The CNN’s star reporter, awarded the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Vietnam, found it an unimportant war.
Against the background of this – unfortunately not unique – Western disinterest when it comes to the long-running humanitarian and political tragedy of Central Africa, Lieve Joris’ The Rebels’ Hour is a particularly valuable book, because it compresses that tragedy into the cheerless, anxious, moving story of the life of one single human being in his own complex and threatening environment. Thus in the 256 pages of her book the author succeeds in making the drama of an incomprehensible, and still ongoing, historical reality thoroughly comprehensible. If a non-fiction writer, bursting with empathy and narrative vigour, is capable of such a feat, then to explain the enormous impression this book leaves with the reader we are forced to consider a completely different interpretation of Tolstoy’s recommendation that authors ought to write about their own village. And then we realise that actually Lieve Joris has been following Tolstoy’s advice to perfection for all these years, and that is precisely what gives her books their universal and personal power. All one needs to do is to understand is that for Lieve Joris half the world is her village.
By Maarten Asscher
Translated by Brian Doyle
First published in The Low Countries, 2007
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