In recent years the Flemish thirty-somethings have been cutting a dash in Dutch-language literature. Even in the Netherlands people are impressed by this generation of writers who are all in their thirties and are reverting to the techniques of modernism. They shrug their shoulders at post-modern irony and want to tell tales again that have some meaning. Dimitri Verhulst (1972-) is the most successful representative of this generation. Verhulst says he learned his trade from the work of the French author Pierre Michon, and especially from the latter’s novel Vies minuscules. Just as Michon pays homage to the congenial outcasts of the region where he was born, so, in his most recent narratives, Verhulst tries to cast a golden glow over the everyday misery of the common people he grew up among. This gives his outcasts an aura of heroism, and deepest Flanders seems like classical Olympus, where people drank and made love to their heart’s content, and engaged in frantic revelry until they passed out. Only these Olympians are no Greek gods but alcoholic uncles of Verhulst, or dozy fellow inhabitants of the Wallonian village where Verhulst is currently living.
In his two most recent books, especially, The Alasness of Things (De helaasheid der dingen, 2006) and The Widow Verona Comes Down the Hill (Mevrouw Verona daalt de heuvel af, 2006), he strains every nerve to elevate the ordinary, too ordinary, lives of the members of his family or his fellow-villagers to a higher plane. To do this Verhulst uses a tragicomical tone that, for all its acerbity, plays the comic note in a very witty and nimble way. That is why since the publication of these novels people in the Netherlands and Belgium enjoy reading him so much. In twelve scenes he tells the story of his Flemish childhood in Nieuwerkerken near Aalst in The Alasness of Things. Just as Michon had done before him in Vies minuscules, he serves up a few striking ‘slices of life’ from this village biotope, in his own typical sarcastic, yet loving, tone. One of the most hilarious, but also most moving, moments is a drinking party when Verhulst’s uncles ape the Tour de France. Just as children follow the course with model cyclists and a dice, so the participants in the competition drink a pint of beer after every five kilometres. During the mountain stages it is not only the gradient that increases, but also the percentage of alcohol, because then they drink gin or cognac instead of beer. The result of these sporting excesses is best left to the imagination.
Dimitri Verhulst knows what he is talking about. He himself comes from a family of alcoholics, was placed with a foster family and ran away. Eventually he ended up in a boarding school where he discovered literature. The muse was literally his salvation, even though his first collection of short stories, The Room Next Door (De kamer hiernaast, 1999), was far from a success. Verhulst’s style had too much of the caricature and grotesque. It was only after Love, Unless Otherwise Specified (Liefde, tenzij anders vermeld, 2001), an anthology of poetry, and above all Hotel Problemski (2003), an account of a stay in a refugee centre, that he got involved with the miserable lot of his everyday characters. He started travelling in his own country and wrote columns about it. Tuesdayland (Dinsdagland, 2004), so titled after the notorious 1969 film If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium of the American traveller ‘doing Europe’, is highly topical again in the light of Belgium’s recent political crisis. After that he ventured into drama (Aalst, 2005) and two novels.
After The Alasness of Things, in which he revisited the area where he was born, he set The Widow Verona Comes Down the Hill against the backdrop of his new home in Wallonia. In the mythical village of Oucwègne the reader becomes acquainted with the artistic widow Verona who following the suicide of her beloved husband Mr Pottenbakker is looking for the lost past. She has a cello made from the tree from which he hanged himself and prepares herself for the ultimate journey down memory lane when she feels her own end drawing nearer. In the hollow in the hill where she lives she reviews the past complete with all its inhabitants. In ultra-refined language that seems to have been written a hundred years ago Verhulst has his female alter ego create penetrating portraits of the minuscule lives in this (for Widow Verona) very important village. For she had lived there all that time with her great love which gave an extraordinary shine to this ordinary village existence in which, for want of candidates, the cow became mayor and for want of a boules alley the annual table-tennis tournament is the big event. So, tongue in cheek, Verhulst evokes the comfortable warmth that comes from a small community. Verhulst, who felt abandoned as a child, is thus busy assembling a house and family for himself in his writing. After all, Verhulst – who never had a real home in his youth – is a lost homeboy looking for a community. He wants to come home and opts for the shelter of a micro society in the face of the tidal wave of globalisation. If you read him attentively, you have to agree with him.
By Frank Hellemans
Translated by Sheila M. Dale
First published in The Low Countries, 2008