The traveller from Central Europe, arriving rather late in the evening, with the rear lights of the city’s cars (most of them American) shining like benevolent, sparkling eyes, is struck by the wealth of this city. He had imagined Antwerp differently, not so elegant, not so extravagantly illuminated by neon signs. Something of the ‘fortress Antwerp’ of the First World War had vaguely implanted itself in his memory, and he had formed an image of a grey and inhospitable city — rainy, dark, a city where taciturn people earn their daily bread amongst citadels and harbour sheds.
But they’re not at all reserved, these large and mostly heavy-set men, these voluptuous and (at least to German eyes) excessively made-up women. The stranger — or should we say ‘intruder’, this man who made his getaway yesterday — sees these men and women walking down De Keyserlei, the main street running from the station to the harbour, sees them in cafés eating fragrant, warm, butter-fried waffles that are enough to make a hungry man’s mouth water. Bruegel. Wash the make-up from the woman’s face, dress the men in peasant smocks, and they look just like the plain folk painted by the master. They do business together despite the crisis in which the industrial world has been floundering since 1929. They feel good about themselves, at least if you can believe their smacking lips and good-natured, gullible eyes, nestled in fat. They feel good about this city, too, which they call the ‘metropolis’ and which they all know was Europe’s mightiest commercial centre in the time of Charles V, richer in silver, gold and magnificent houses than London or Paris.
How vigorous is the pulse of life here, thinks the intruder, much more vigorous than in Cologne, the city he just left, and even than in Vienna, which sinks deeper and deeper into the mists of his fading memory. The stranger will learn soon enough that not all the people of Antwerp go carousing every Sunday like Bruegel’s peasants; not all of them are satisfied with their city, country and government. For the time being, however, he’ll find that what stands between him and the city’s 600,000 inhabitants is a language — an anti-language, he was tempted to say at first, because there’s hardly anything in it that doesn’t gurgle, cough, roll its Rs and only occasionally break free into vowels that slide from A to O! Call that a language? But you get used to it, as you get used to so many other things that seemed intolerable at first. The stranger learns the language. He learns it with relative ease, in fact, by listening carefully and reading the newspapers, although the latter tend to pose some deeply mysterious riddles for him. He reads about taalwetten — language laws — and for a long time he associates this with cross-country skiing competitions in some valley or other. (The Dutch word for ‘language’ — ‘taal’ — reminds the German speaker of ‘Tal’, the German word for ‘valley’; ‘laws’ — ‘wetten’ in Dutch — makes him think of the German ‘wetten’ — to wager — and of ‘Wettbewerb’ — competition.) But he figures it all out soon enough, even the surprising fact that the te huur signs (meaning ‘to let’) posted on some of the houses have nothing to do with the world’s oldest profession. (The German word for prostitute is ‘Hure’.) No, the Dutch language is something you quickly get the hang of more or less, and then it loses its painful cacophony, because what you yourself speak is never ugly.
The undesirable (he reads about undesirables every day in the newspaper whenever the topic turns to people of his kind) must find shelter. With the few francs and cents in his pocket that Antwerp’s tirelessly attentive Jewish community makes available to its refugees, he walks to the city centre in increasingly shabby footwear in search of a room that is both te huur and affordable. There are plenty of souls in the same predicament in Antwerp who are willing to give him advice, but all of them direct him to de joodse wijk, the Jewish quarter. And that’s exactly where he doesn’t want to go. He knows a thing or two about Antwerp’s social milieu, and he’s also read that there are a considerable number of rich diamond dealers living in impressive new flats on the edge of the city. They’ve escaped from the joodse wijk, because climbing the rungs of the social ladder seems to go hand in hand with extricating oneself, at least superficially, from one’s fated human origins. These people — these gentlemen and their good, often smartly dressed and usually French-speaking ladies, who’ve gained entrée into every corner of European culture (not by birth, certainly, but by virtue of their husband’s diamond wealth) — these are not the people whom the intruder is likely to visit. He has yet to attain such heights. They stand up for him being given the minimum means of subsistence out of their sense of duty to the national government, but for obvious reasons they want as little as possible to do with these insufficiently avaricious wretches whose ethnic origins and physiognomy are the same as theirs, but whose national backgrounds are totally different. Anyone who nevertheless manages to look these people in the eye is told, at the very most, ‘Well, you’re safe here, thank God! But why didn’t you people organise a revolt against that Hitler?’ Not a very promising door to knock on.
And the old joodse wijk, dwelling place of poor Jews, diamond cutters, small-time merchants and factory workers — that’s a district the stranger avoids with the instinct of someone who knows that the unfamiliar isn’t really offensive until it starts huddling together. And so the search continues.
Almost automatically, his path leads him to one of those hostelries in the harbour district — they call themselves hotels — where you can rent a room for a song. There he finds shelter for about a year and a half in accommodation that can hardly be called genteel. His next-door neighbours are not exactly people of quality. There’s one who leaves the building each morning with a small suitcase filled with combs, cheap cosmetics and other assorted junk that he hopes to sell. Another, who slinks through the corridors, always in his dressing gown, seems to be entertaining ambitions as a pimp on the lookout for whores. The undesirable, who in the eyes of the authorities is as suspect as a young girl, quickly makes the acquaintance of the large-bosomed lady who seems to have a pleasant manner and is very helpful. She comes from Liège, which is called Lüttich in German and Luik in Dutch. She only speaks French and she hates the Flemish people of Antwerp, who happen to form her clientele. They’re not real Belgians, she says. They’re already making eyes at the Germans and they’re going to sell us down the river. The newcomer doesn’t want to believe her. Wasn’t it a Flemish labourer who assured him yesterday that Hitler was a smeerlap — a filthy bastard? He gets on pretty well with the Flemings now that he’s half-mastered their language. It makes no difference to him that every now and then when they’re in a euphoric mood they like to sing nationalistic songs like ‘Vliegt de Blauwvoet’, which was the title of a novel by the National-Socialist writer Otto Brües (‘Fliegt der Blaufuss?’).
All he knows is that this is a democracy. This city has a socialist mayor, and one of the most popular politicians in the country, Paul-Henri Spaak, is also a socialist. It will take a little more time before he’s able to see through the facade of Belgian democracy and discover the two nations locked in a death grip that lie behind it. For the time being he just tries to discover the city. Not as an ordinary tourist or a cultural tourist! He never enters the beautiful Late Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, which he passes every day, not even when Rubens’s paintings are being displayed for the art crowd. And he hasn’t got enough money for the Flemish opera or the Flemish theatre (where Lessing’s Nathan der Weise is often performed). The harbour district is where the stranger mostly hangs out. The brothels right behind the Great Market, with its magnificent Renaissance city hall, are what interest him. He’s never seen anything like it: glass doors, like in a little shop, with modest but clean rooms behind them containing wide beds, embroidered table cloths and bouquets of artificial flowers. They’re display windows, and the items on display are women between the ages of seventeen and fifty in low-cut dresses and heavy make-up, women with mask-like faces who flash their eternally frozen smiles whenever someone passes by, hoping for a customer. Sometimes they beckon to him to come closer, or they make come-hither gestures like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. He never tires of it, pondering their mysterious way of life. Besides, he feels like a kindred soul. A few steps away from this web of narrow streets and alleys where they’ve pitched their camp is the town hall, the location of the supreme authority — the police. The unwanted guest is fully aware that the police look at him with the same cold stare that they fix on the local girls. What he doesn’t have any way of knowing is how much more comfortable than his the situation of these poor whores will be a year from now. They’ll find customers, men in short, black boots — beetle-crushers, they call them. And him … what about him? We’ll soon see.
The time has come to speak of this, too. Right now he’s content to roam the alleyways with a rather serene trust in the world, dropping down to the quay where the Salvation Army dishes out dirt-cheap meals to all and sundry. Horse steak is very high on the menu here. During the late afternoon he might walk through the narrow streets past the lovely gabled houses, looking for the city library. There he finds a well-stocked section of German books where he can pursue his constantly interrupted course of study under his own steam — still the best method. The librarians are helpful and polite. For them, one well-bred foreigner is just a reader, like any other. They obligingly drag out Thomas Mann’s ‘Joseph’ novels, or an entire volume of the magazine Mass und Wert, or Der Logische Aufbau der Welt, a massive tome by Rudolf Carnap. Every now and then he has a shot at a Dutch book — by Felix Timmermans or Ernest Claes, for instance, in which the world of the Flemish farmer is contrasted, and not without malicious undertones, with that of the filth and the so-called corruption of the Walloon industrial areas. (He doesn’t pick up on these undertones, though, unfamiliar as he still is with the contours of Belgian political, social and economic life.)
Sometimes, while taking a cigarette break in front of the small library, so idyllic in the North Sea light, he strikes up a conversation with Flemish library visitors, students, intellectuals. That’s when he learns that Flanders is finally waking up and is about to capture a place in the sun in this country, and that this Belgium is nothing but a despicable state that has oppressed the Flemings for an entire century and kept them staggering under the yoke of a totally foreign culture and a hated language. The French-speakers — the Walloons and the people of Brussels — are only interested in Paris, according to his interlocutors. To them, Dutch is mere gibberish and the Flemings a bunch of stupid peasants. And —would you believe it? — even in Antwerp, the metropolis, there are traitors to their race: Flemings who only speak French, a disgraceful bourgeoisie! Those people will get what’s coming to them soon enough. And if it ever comes to war, France is bound to lose to the new Germany and the French-speakers will have to surrender their privileged position.
The guest, suddenly feeling more undesirable than ever, doesn’t dare answer and shyly backs away in silence. The new Germany! My God! He could tell them a thing or two about that. But anyone who is there on sufferance, who has to go begging for his residence permit every three months, always afraid that this unsightly bit of paper will be withheld from him, is wise to keep quiet. So he flees upstairs, back to the library’s nicely warmed interior, so much more hospitable than his gloomy room in that disreputable hotel. He seeks shelter with Thomas Mann, but is sadly unsuccessful. Yes, he even detects a bit of jealousy and resentment in himself when he thinks of the beloved writer: ‘You, sir, it was easy enough for you, writing away in Küsnacht-Zürich with all your money and fame and an awareness of how incomparable you were! Why not come here for a change, and listen to the obnoxious drivel of these blockheads who don’t know what they’re talking about, which doesn’t make them any less guilty. Ah, you’d rather not, would you? You’d sooner write noble letters full of noble words to noble individuals.’
The intruder hurries back to his residence, a tall, drab, almost black structure with a tavern on the ground floor. He looks for Denise the whore and invites her for a glass of beer, which is just about as far as his money will take him. Denise from Liège, the frumpy, heavy-breasted yet not unattractive Denise — at least Denise tells him that if there’s a war, the Huns will be defeated. France. The Maginot Line. Just let those eastern barbarians try to knock their skulls against that! Even Belgium is armed to the teeth. La Belgique: for Denise, the sanctified native soil that must be defended at all costs is an ally of invincible superpowers, France and England. When push comes to shove, King Leopold III’s declaration of neutrality won’t stand a chance. Denise found that out from one of her best customers, an officer. The uninvited guest feels so moved by this lady’s anti-Nazi, Belgian patriotism that he takes her up on her much-repeated offer. She’s got sympathy for the plight of a refugee. Didn’t her own father have to flee from the German conqueror during the First World War?
Denise’s body is soft and warm, and very maternal. With her he feels at home. Secure in her abundance, his thoughts are far from Antwerp. But if war ever comes, says Denise afterwards, then…
From Localities (Örtlichkeiten, 1980)
By Jean Améry
Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier
First published in The Low Countries, 2001