The Face and Voice of Flanders

Six Family Novels by Erik Vlaminck

Maurice (de) Vlaminck was a Fauviste painter who at one time caused a sensation in pre-1914 Paris. August Vlaminck was one of the first Belgian photographers, having begun his career in the nineteenth century as court painter to King Leopold II. And now we have the writer Erik Vlaminck (1954-), who in a cycle of six novels uses verbal photography to portray a century of Flanders through the maternal and paternal side of his family. The voice of the common people resounds in all its proverbial pithiness and wisdom. But after each soundbite the sound engineer Vlaminck steps aside and the lucid photographer in him produces a lucid and vivid snapshot of the scenes just shot with a soundtrack. It is this combination of popular empathy and photographic distance that makes Vlaminck’s cycle such an exceptional narrative. It puts Vlaminck among the ranks of eminent Flemish epic narrators such as Hugo Claus (The Sorrow of BelgiumHet verdriet van België, 1983) and more recently Erwin Mortier (Marcel (1999), My Second SkinMijn tweede huid, 2000 and Exposure TimeSluitertijd, 2002). All three chronicle the pulsating life of a century of Flemish family history lovingly and with great stylistic finesse, but at the same time none of them spares the rod.

Ember Days (Quatertemperdagen, 1992) is the title of the first panel of Vlaminck’s double triptych, taken from the Catholic days of fasting in each season which were once landmarks on the Christian’s way through life. The hilarious tone of the dialogue that gives the whole cycle its flavour is already emphatically present, but so too is the poignant undertone. For the family chronicle begins with the suicide of Jaak Van Riel. So however exuberant things may get in Vlaminck’s work, he almost always ends on a muted note and reverently bids farewell to a scene before moving on to the next slice of life. In Wolves Howl (Wolven huilen, 1993) the narrator goes to Canada to dig up the wartime past of an unknown half-brother of his grandmother’s. In Stanny, a Still Life (Stanny, een stil leven, 1996), the third part, Vlaminck zooms in on the sad life of a young neighbour who came originally from a polder village that had to be cleared to make way for the expansion of the port of Antwerp. Through Vlaminck’s skill in montage the personal tragedy of this Stanny is enlarged into the tragedy of a whole village that is wiped off the map. In this subtle way the writer shows how the personal misery of the little man and the great social suffering are bound up together. In Schismatic Writing (Het schismatieke schrijven, 2005), the last volume of the six, Vlaminck returns at length to Stanny and to himself as an author-in-the-making, but first he explores the up and downs in the lives of his paternal grandparents. The Vlamincks are very different people, and are far from accepting life’s setbacks fatalistically or silently as the Van Riels do. With their artistic imagination and their taste for adventure, they try to make the best of things. In The Portraitist (De portrettentrekker, 1998), the fourth volume, and Wooden Clogs (Houten schoenen, 2000), the fifth and penultimate part, it is the war scenes particularly that stick in the memory. Now that Vlaminck has concluded his six-volume cycle, no one can deny the stature of his brand of literary folk music.

By Frank Hellemans
Translated by Paul Vincent

First published in The Low Countries, 2007