Past Imperfect, Present Continuous

Belgian Current Affairs in Flemish Literature

The political and social upheavals of Belgium’s recent troubled past have not left Flemish literature untouched. In the literary world they gave rise to a brief but vigorous debate about politics and literature, social commitment and belles-lettres. However, the creative fall-out of all this has been rather meagre.

In the autumn of 1996 it seemed for a time that the ghost of the turbulent 1960s was walking again. The immediate occasion for this was the Dutroux affair, a case of serial child-abuse and murder that attracted international interest. The case, which led to an unprecedented demonstration of over half a million citizens in the streets of Brussels (the so-called White March), was a catalyst for the airing of general, if often extremely vague, social and political disquiet and criticism (see The Low Countries 1999-2000: pp. 65-72). In Belgium, as in other European states, the institutions of administration, justice and politics had for some time been suffering a crisis of public confidence.

For writers, this period had the attraction of a ‘twilight zone’. If the ordinary citizen could become engagé — committed to a cause — and take to the streets, why not the artist? From every corner the question re-echoed again: quoi faire? — at a time when the citizen was demanding justice on the steps of the law courts.

And with the onrushing millennium as a backdrop, is it any wonder that writers got itchy fingers? They wanted to capture their time. Flanders has a tradition of authors who, as the Flemish author Louis Paul Boon often expressed it, want to be the ‘seismograph’ of their age and their society. This gave rise, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, to some literary monstrosities: books in which social and political engagement — in the form of a ‘message’ — was rammed home with a sledge-hammer at the expense of aesthetics and even of literature itself. But other writers, like Boon or Hugo Claus, who realised that literary commitment automatically implied social commitment (because form and content are always one) avoided that pitfall. Their work was what good literature ought always to be: an integrated testimony to their time and to the people and society of that time.

When Ivo Michiels, in whose books language becomes both the medium and the message, was asked why his work did not reflect any engagement, he referred to Kafka ‘who, though he did not describe industrial disputes, nevertheless provided one of the most profound testimonies of his turbulent age’. And Michiels is right: his own so-called ‘other prose’ — brimful of experimental language and form — reflects a high level of social commitment. He has defined that commitment himself: ‘What counts is not the anecdotal, but the spirit of the time.’ He has even described literature that explicitly aims to change the world as a form of fraud.

By 1996, artistic Flanders had already spent several years in heated debate about the pressing question: ‘Can art save the world?’. It is no accident that the question, though first asked when Antwerp became the 1993 European City of Culture, came after the successes of the far right-wing Vlaams Blok in 1991 had begun to pose a real threat to democracy.

So in the autumn of 1996 the old fallacies from the 1960s and 70s concerning social and political commitment in literature surfaced again, in public debates and lofty declarations of intent. Once again one heard echoes of the spirit of the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch who during the Vietnam War said that it was not a time for ‘writing stories’. It was a time for ‘doing something’. The young Flemish writer Jeroen Olyslaegers seemed in 1996 to be a poor copy of Mulisch. He talked about ‘horror show Belgium’ and suggested that the newspaper reports on the Dutroux affair could be turned straight into a novel. Indeed, a few years later he tried it, in a novel whose title was a reference to Louis Paul Boon: Open Like a Mouth (Open gelijk een mond, 1999). It was an instructive failure. It gave a vague impression of the uncomfortable atmosphere then prevailing in the Kingdom of Belgium, larded with many references to actual events. It was a fashionable book, with much youthful idiom and hip braggadocio. But all that did not make it either a great book or a modern one.

On balance, the four years of Flemish literature between 1996 and 2000 have, with few exceptions, produced disappointingly little. Writers either got bogged down in unconvincing, over-stated ‘messages’ — as in the 1960s — with the clamour and media attention surrounding the writer often overshadowing the book itself. Or references to actual events from social and political reality were reduced to the status of décor, a backdrop.

The power of the implicit

The writer who was most explicitly inspired by Belgian current affairs was Tom Lanoye. It shows in his political columns, in an essay/address/performance, Splintered and Soiled (Gespleten en bescheten, 1998), in a cycle of plays, To War (Ten oorlog, 1997), and in a trilogy of novels, The Divine Monster (Het goddelijke monster, 1997-1999). Lanoye is a many-sided and refined artist. He is conscious of his position in the tradition of ‘seismographic’ writers such as Gerard Walschap, Louis Paul Boon and Walter van den Broeck. At the same time he is a modern artist with his finger on the pulse of the time. He is perfectly aware of the pitfalls of socially engagé literature, which is why he was so upset when his trilogy of novels was once described as ‘a glorified press review’.

In The Divine Monster every Flemish reader will instantly recognise actual persons and events from Belgium’s recent past. They are ‘used’ by Lanoye as material for the life and times of a Flemish family, of a generation. Perhaps the anecdotal element does distract somewhat from the larger, literary purpose. Nevertheless, it is an undeniably enjoyable and compelling game for readers to try to identify the references to current events in Belgium in the 1990s.

Ironically, Lanoye says more about the spirit of the times and about Belgian society in his cycle of plays To War where there are fewer — or even no — references to actual events. His reworking of Shakespeare’s history plays is clearly politics as art. While writing them, Lanoye paid particularly close attention to the questions of power and powerlessness, the cold war and the hot peace as they made their daily appearance even in Belgian politics. To War does not deal directly with Belgian politics or current affairs, and the reader/viewer is therefore not ‘distracted’ ; but at the same time it does provide the reader/viewer with powerful glasses through which to view that time and its events. It is art.

This was also true of his explicitly political columns, a genre in which he is not only a master but also the only practising Flemish author. The quoi faire question finally led Lanoye himself into active political commitment: he confessed to being a member of the ecology renewal party, Agalev.

That was a step which Hugo Claus, the man who once designated Lanoye as his spiritual son, rejected. In recent years, Claus has twice been the unwitting illustration (or should it be caricature?) of the epigram that poets are prophets. His novel Rumours (De geruchten, 1996) was already at the printer’s when some of the events that he described cropped up in reality in the Dutroux affair. And when its successor, Past Imperfect (Onvoltooid verleden, 1997), was translated into Swedish, its Swedish readers promptly associated the book with the paedophile scandal that had just erupted in their own country.

Yet the strength of Claus’s most recent novels does not lie in their direct link with current affairs. Like Lanoye, but more powerfully and with more epic tension, any reminders of or allusions to Belgian affairs, whether or not deliberate, are there to serve the larger themes of Claus’s work: guilt and punishment, Eros and Thanatos. Claus works on an immense psychological canvas, which is already present in his earlier work: mystery, the obscure essence of humanity, or more specifically of the Fleming, with his many taboos and hidden lives, the cellars of the psyche. Claus’s ambitions do not extend beyond that: he has no pretensions to comprehend Belgium politically: ‘Ach, how does that go exactly, creation, so much has been written about it. One thing I can say for sure: it never begins with an idea. It is never anything like: “what shall we do about the approaching dust cloud of the Vlaams Blok”.’

Like To War, Claus’s diptych Rumours and Past Imperfect does offer the reader a pair of glasses that enable him to see events more clearly than the reading of newspapers here and now could ever do. Claus himself sees it thus: ‘Don’t expect rational political analysis from me. However, from a symbolic and allegorical point of view I am capable of seeing ahead.’

A nice detail: Past Imperfect was commissioned by the national newspaper De Morgen and was published at the very moment that the ‘real’ reports on the Dutroux affair were coming to a head.

Finally, there is also Walter van den Broeck who, again with direct reference to the Dutroux affair, published the novel Lost in the Post (Verdwaalde post, 1998). Van den Broeck comes across in this book as one who despairs of civilisation, who regards the mendacious language of politics, advertising and the media as responsible for the dislocation in society. He draws a contrast between them and a timeless love story. Just like Louis Paul Boon, Van den Broeck combines historical concerns with the urge to experiment with form.

Possibly the events of Belgium’s recent history are too recent, too fresh, to give direct rise to good literature. The past is incomplete; the present still unprocessed. There is no novel that encapsulates, that ‘captures’ contemporary Belgium. As yet no-one has produced a proper socio-political analysis of the (post)modern zeitgeist. There is still too much curiosity and too little real understanding of politics and society, and as a result in most novels Belgium remains mere décor. Ironically, writers get closer to Belgium’s past and present in those parts of their work that stay a reasonable distance from current events, or at least from the actual facts and personages of those events.

Furthermore, in the most recent Flemish literature there is a growing interest in and appreciation of a generation of young writers who distance themselves from current affairs, and therefore, it would seem, from any engagement: authors such as Peter Verhelst (Tonguecat (Tongkat) and Swelling Fruit (Zwellend fruit, 2000)) and Erwin Mortier (Marcel (1999) and My Other Skin (Mijn tweede huid, 2000)). The critic Frank Hellemans once labelled them ‘the new aesthetes’. But perhaps such labels and the need to distinguish between different sorts of writing are now too dated, rooted as they are in the literary-critical fault-line of the 1960s and 1970s: the fault-line between engagement, socially committed writing, and belles-lettres.

Verhelst himself denies, as does Ivo Michiels, the accusation that his work is ‘uncommitted’ and that it is ‘art for art’s sake’: ‘In Tonguecat, among other things, I merged style and structure with the content. There is a duality in the work that is also clearly detectable in our time: that of fragmentation on the one hand and the urge towards greater unity on the other: two movements that are not only socially, politically and economically highly visible but which also have extremely far-reaching consequences.

Verhelst therefore also delights in saying the almost unsayable; he avoids the lies of actual reality (non-fiction) and, as an artist, searches for a Grand Narrative, which is best captured in fairy tales, in poetry. Like Boon, who ‘retold’ the old allegorical fable of Reynard the Fox, and thereby cast a clearer light on his own (Belgian) time than any non-fictional or explicitly committed book could have done. And are not Lanoye’s Shakespearean historical plays also fairy tales?

Seismography, in the sense that Boon used the term, means more than the registering and ‘translation’ of events, the facts of true happenings. It is rather a question of capturing the spirit of the time, of trends and movements, of real social evolution. At the time they are happening such trends do not lend themselves to neatly rounded stories (mimesis); they belong rather to what lingers in the sphere of the still-unsayable. And that makes them all the more challenging to artists. It was no accident that the colour of the White March was white. Nor that it is also the colour of poetry. Precisely in that lies or can lie the power of artists.

Other paradigms please!

The Grand Narrative with ‘extremely far-reaching consequences’ obviously takes us beyond events in Flanders or Belgium. Part of that narrative in the twenty-first century is the lightning-fast development of science. Together with globalisation, it has led to entirely new questions, new paradigms of humanity, environment, life and death. What is striking is the total absence of such ‘modernity’ from Flemish literature (and not only Flemish, as is apparent from a recent complaint by George Steiner).

In this too, Boon is the lonely exception in Flanders and the Netherlands. As an artist, he stood at the centre of the politics, economics and science of his age. Long before modern chaos theory, modern times vibrated through his prose. In the early 1950s Boon was already viewing the world through the eyes of later modern science. In English-language literature you find the same ‘modernity’ in the work of Jenny Diski (Monkey’s Uncle) and Jeanette Winterson. In contemporary Flemish literature, on the other hand, one looks in vain for a writer who uses modern scientific insights to observe the course of the world and humanity.

So anyone wanting to learn about present-day Flanders and Belgium through its literature should read To War by Tom Lanoye. Or he should read the literary journalistic book that became a bestseller in 2000 in both the fiction and non-fiction categories: The Breach (De bres) by Chris de Stoop. It is about the polder village of Doel and its farming community, who are faced with extinction through the expansion of Antwerp’s port and industry. An ‘old’ story for these modern times. Or better still, one should read a good poem such as ‘Sémira’ by the young Flemish poet Peter Theunynck. It is ‘about’ a Nigerian asylum seeker who, while being repatriated from Belgium to her native land, dies when the policemen escorting her smother her with a cushion because she resists them. The poem is not just about that one girl; it is about Belgium and, by extension, Fortress Europe in the year 2000. It is about life and death at the end of the twentieth century. And at the same time it creates a bridge to life and death in earlier times. So much in so few words. It cannot be coincidence that this is poetry and not a novel. It cannot be anything else than engagement. It is art.


Somewhere in this throwaway land
A track of dolomite on which
A girl is sitting, quite alone.
Below her arms, her lower body

A broken white. Too little
Time, too little linen to
Wrap her in.

In men doors slam
Shut, humanity drops away,
The ovens have been lit. 

But does that touch her
Beauty? No. A swan
With wings shot full of lead remains
A swan, still floating after death.

By Filip Rogiers
Translated by Chris Emery

First published in The Low Countries, 2001