Anything I set my hand to falls to bits

An Extract from J.M.H. Berckmans’ The Investigation Begins

Fits of depression, manic spells, a failed marriage, 12 different jobs and 13 disasters, one attempt at suicide. The utter hopelessness of an existence on the fringes of society, with a few shreds of comfort from beer, tobacco, and a bit of warm food. Despair, paranoia, sadism, hope and relentless brutality. All this is to be found in the books, and the life, of J.M.H. Berckmans, the Flemish writer who declares: ‘The only way I have of staying alive is writing’.

Kind Emmy,

It’s spring once again in the Grubbyzone and greenmould is taking over Berckmans’ Biotope.
My doggie Charlowie is still alive, as too am I, though only sporadically and wimpishly so, only now and then and more lying down than walking, more slouched than sitting and I was supposed to come and see you on Thursday 30/03/00 between 8.00 and 9.00 but the increasing severity of claudicatioterminans in my left leg foiled the plan. My left leg doesn’t look good at all and I might have to have it removed, which is no laughing matter but nothing really to cry about either. A chop can be neatly arranged.
What I wanted to say, kind Emmy, is that I thought that the OCMW social services, well as far as my affairs are concerned, that they had made an arrangement with Belgacom concerning the monthly payment of the telephone bills that are still due. Why then, kind Emmy, did I receive a registered letter — see said letter included — from Belgacom?
And another thing.
Could you please, before it’s too late or before it becomes impossible, ring me at a potty-trained time of the day and inform me of all the necessary concerning my life allowance (sic) for the month of April. I sorely need my life allowance for bread and bacon and coffee and for my little doggie Charlowie too, as the poor creature is more than fed up with fasting and has begun to protest very loudly and has even started biting my neighbours, David Geluk and Dinah Washington’s calves. My father is not long dead and my mother has just passed away and I must face it all on my own and arrange everything myself, something I can hardly manage to do, if at all, kind Emmy.
Anything I set my hand to falls to bits. Could you come and do the dishes for me or hoover my mats or make me a pallet on someone’s floor; could you come and wash my sheets for me or would you happen to have a spare stove lying about because it’s cold here; could you buy one of my paintings because I’ve still got a whole set of them left, would you please (urgently) transfer my life allowance to account number 789-5455045-74 at bollock-Bacob Bank who, as far as rent surety and other matters are concerned, have been seriously taking the mickey, but never you mind, kind Emmy, I’ll be taking a firm hold of theirs, all in good time.
And now on a more serious note, I’m in need of psychotherapeutic help, for I’ve fallen overboard and though I’m still floating around a little, sinking and being sunk are more than imminent and death by drowning doesn’t seem like a pleasant prospect and besides who’s going to pay for the funeral?
And to continue briefly on that more serious note.
Notwithstanding the above-mentioned drivel, which is literature and solely designed for the purposes of publication, I kindly ask you to get in touch and try to sort out the one thing and the other with me; that would be really nice because I can hardly put one foot in front of the other, and have to rely on help from family and friends and as my family is mad and my friends are few, my family is magenta and my friends are blue and as you can see I’m a poet and I don’t know it, but still I implore you to come and help me support my lot, my accursed lot, my damned piddley pot of a lot, now that the spring is here once again in Grubbyzone and that the green mould is about to take over Berckmans’ Biotope yet again.
P.S. I’ve come to the realisation that, according to my tenancy agreement, I should be paying the monthly sum of BEF 9,500 in rent to KBV/Van Nederkassel.
And by mistake, I’ve been paying BEF 10,000 for a full thirteen months. Are they going to reimburse the difference or how or what or who’s going to arrange that for me as I myself am so totally disarranged and don’t know my arse from my elbow and haven’t a clue which driftwood to make arrows with and besides there’s no point in chopping firewood anyway as my stove is broken. Well OK I look a bit blue but I’m still alive and I have a couple of heavy overcoats and my uncle Henry gave me a woollen scarf as a New Year’s present; I got a sailor’s cap from my late father and I can put on three pairs of socks, one over the other, except I’ll have to buy shoes a size bigger and I’d go ha-ha-ha but I don’t find it at all funny; in fact it makes me very depressed, but after a bout of depression I always get manic and then I’ll be all happy and then you won’t have seen the end of me yet, even though they’ll have put me inside and I won’t be able to get out because I’m penniless.
So please send my life allowance to account number seven eight nine five four five five nought four five seven four or give us a call to check or to double-check or to triple-check this, that and the other and maybe we’ll discover together how to square the circle and if so then we’ll never have to do a tap of work again in our lives just like Plato or that bloke Aristotle, or like some of those epicurean bollixes at the heart of the government with their gobs and pusses full of rubbish about an active welfare state, ah sure aren’t they the decent fellows, sure don’t we know, kind Emmy, me and you, sure aren’t they the guys that get the dolls, Emmy, who know where the party’s at, but all the girls are dead and those who aren’t are either scarred or crippled and that’s why I live alone and that’s not easy.
Hoping for a speedy reply, I send you my heart-felt greetings, you’re not the worst, there certainly are worse. Arrividerci, till the left leg gets better again.
My good friend Kernwinkel has disappeared off the face of the earth and Zachaar hardly ever shows; only Goedertier is doing relatively well, even though he too has lost his way in Kromsky’s hell, a place in which I myself am trying to vegetate and exist and reside, while trying as much as possible to be unconcerned about the doings of messrs Schmit, Brackeva, Vernimmen and Courboin. They are no friends of mine but in you I’ve put my trust.

Kind regards,
Jean-Marie

From The Investigation Begins (Het onderzoek begint, 2002)
By J.M.H. Berckmans
Translated by Peter Flynn

First published in The Low Countries, 2007