Three Extracts

We dreamt of a world without people

We had an authoritarian upbringing. Were we the better for it? A totalitarian upbringing. Were other people the better for it?
A German dog-training method had made our parents dedicated adherents of behaviourism. Healthy discipline could only lead to a better organised party, family and state. A conditioned body guaranteed personal happiness. The cat (our Choop) was shoved in a sack and drowned.
Like fascism, socialism too was based on authority. Communism too, like national-socialism, subjected to absolute power.
Classical equalled German. French culture had oppressed the fatherland for centuries. The Truth was set in gothic script.
Our cultural education stood on ethnographic foundations. Our humanistic instruction was politically sound. To improve our race: gymnastics and marching music.
Hear the song of these our schools. This is not a call to fight. If in doubt or indecisive, sing a song of tolerance.
My brothers and myself — they wore the brown and yellow of Flemish Youth movements, I was in the garden around our villa — were educated ‘for later’. For times of war. For times of peace. For some sort of hereafter which we could not comprehend, which we never did comprehend. We dreamt of a world without people.
We have been hardened. We have been so hardened that we never did find out what kept distancing us from everything we were made to face. We unlearned hunger, thirst, fatigue. We learnt to swallow pain, never mentioned our fears. After the age of five, I do not remember ever being hungry or thirsty. Not even when I did not eat or drink, and so knew all too well that I was wrong about myself.
Open up the screening shutters, to what was and is to be. Hope to live a clean existence, through the broadness of your mind.
What time we spent with people who knew nothing of our background, left them thinking we were always hiding something. That my brothers and I were hiding ourselves.
We ourselves are not hiding anything. But it may be that our upbringing has hidden us. Even from ourselves.

From A Lovely Life (Een schoon bestaan, 1989)
By Pol Hoste
Translated by Nadine Malfait

 

Small bourgeoisie

If I build a house out of this Heap (give in to what others expect of me) — having first assembled myself like a prefab dwelling —, will I not be confronted with the poverty of the grandparents who brought me up? As a child of a new layer of society, the son of post-war minor officialdom?
We no longer eat straight out of the container, we put everything on a plate. Salted dairy butter soaks into pearly white crumb. A white tin loaf on Fridays. On the dark blue thin wooden box of processed cheese: the freckled face of a boy. Little fellow.
I may well end up just as drab as the workmen’s terraces in the neighbourhood, where I played with factory workers’ children. The child of an aspiring middle class, the product of a progressive white-collar Civil Servant.
Next to the bread, the dishcloth, on the white and green tiled table top, lies the bread knife. Crumbs stuck in black joins. A poorly silver-plated fork fishes herring out of a jar, vinegar drips on the glaze. Tepid ale sparkles in blue-stemmed rummers.
Isn’t there some way I can get closer to the house I’m building? Do I keep shutting myself out from everything, is that it? Didn’t I always just wander around in that parental villa, never really live there?
Every day the cleaning lady — her apron smells of gingerbread — cleans the mantelpiece, the windowsills, the table’s edges, the door frames, the skirting boards, the floor’s edges, the bluestone doorsteps in front of the house, the jugs in the basement.
What background entitles the folks bossing me about at work to speak? What county did their parents live in? What priest taught them morality?
I guess I’ll go on distrusting everybody in this place: will always feel threatened here, in this Heap, this house, restless between strange city walls.
Mind you: a baked cooking apple with a dollop of butter and brown sugar in winter. Dry kindling to light the fire, a shovelful of coal: tiny, poor-quality anthracite. So we don’t have to go to bed in the cold.
‘Warm yourself up a bit before you go upstairs.’

From A Lovely Life (Een schoon bestaan, 1989)
By Pol Hoste
Translated by Nadine Malfait

 

An actor’s life for me

I spent the first twenty years of my life using only words that did not mean what I wanted to say. And why? I learned that man must fear himself. That’s why he doesn’t live in nature, but in systems.
I detested trickery or abuse of trust. I was raised on a thousand fibs. Scared is what I was. But I was by no means afraid to hang about with ghosts. Summer evenings were spent playing with the bats in the garden. Had people examined my loneliness more closely, they would have spotted this lively little lad, who loved company and mirth. Though spelling was not my pet aversion, I definitely disliked minding my p’s and q’s. Impossible, that’s what I was!
But having to swallow the words you hear inside is sheer torture. A child might seize the opportunity to familiarise itself with the imperfections of life and unravel the commonplaces of its native tongue.
I merely made sure to blend in. Whether I liked the piece or hated the director, I was determined to play the part. So nobody bothered to ask my opinion.
That didn’t stop me from finding things out for myself, though. It’s still a mystery to me why people in my native town insist on using the most complex figures of speech to impose the most banal views on each other. The technique does, however, make it incredibly easy to change your opinion as soon as you’ve come out with it. With a bit of talent you can actually repeat everything and make it sound exactly like its opposite.
I certainly acquired an insight into verbal manipulation that way. But let me become an actor? No way. Is there anything more pleasing than making other people laugh?
I beg your pardon? Effacing myself into the part of a seductive but obnoxious extra is a female trait, is it? Tu exagères.
It all ends in uncertainties anyway, just like this mortal coil. I’ll tease anyone who refuses to accept the multi-layeredness of his own words. Aren’t we constantly being fooled by the very terms we rely upon for leading others up the garden path?
I guess I should really be much more careful and keep quiet about the ambiguities I hear. What use is a language that fails to formulate itself? Nosy parkers! The last thing you should expect from me is that I should keep my opinion to myself: that, I leave to others.

From Letters to Mozart (Brieven aan Mozart, 1991)
By Pol Hoste
Translated by Nadine Malfait

First published in The Low Countries, 2005