The Work of Monika van Paemel
Monika van Paemel was born on 4 May 1945, and because of the war she was delivered on her grandmother’s farm in the country village of Poesele in East Flanders, where she also spent her childhood years. It was only later that she was taken from there, against her will, to her parents’ house in the city of Antwerp. These circumstances were later to play an important part in her literary work, whose material and themes she derives largely from her own life, with very close links binding real life and writing. Her debut came in 1971 with the short novel Amazone with the Blue Forehead (Amazone met het blauwe voorhoofd), and anyone looking back at that work today can see that it already shows virtually all the thematic, formal and stylistic characteristics of her later work. In this sense it could even be said that she has been writing the same book for the last twenty years, extending and deepening her themes and gaining an increasingly firm hold on the structure and style of her novels, but always concerned with what is, for her, the essence and purpose of writing: the conquest, defence and justification of her independent personal existence as a woman and an artist in a world dominated by men and the violence of war. The trauma of her birth at the end of the Second World War lies at the heart of this: an unwanted child to parents who had wanted a son, a girl whose mother pronounced the verdict on her that ‘it would have been better if she had never existed’, and also the daughter of a father who had fought as an SS soldier in Russia and then gone underground.
Writing therefore becomes first and foremost the secret weapon with which she tries to free herself from her origins, and it remains – for the rest of her life – the perfect tool for giving expression and form to the development of her individuality, hard-won from history and society. In Amazone with the Blue Forehead she tells how as a child she marked trees with her own signs – an early form of writing – as proof that she existed. Elsewhere in the same book she defines writing as ‘an essential form of disloyalty – breaking out – setting free’. The theme of curtailed freedom is symbolised even in the title by the Brazilian parrot, which is caged up in a town house and filled with a homesick longing for the vastness of the forests. This whole first novel is uninhibitedly dominated by the rebellious desire to ‘be herself as a woman, in other words: free’. As one sign of this, the author also gives herself a new name in the book, ‘Gisela’, just as she is to give herself a different name in each of her following works. Beyond doubt, all these names should not be seen primarily as (transparent) disguises for a novelist who wants to conceal herself, but rather as indications of the changing forms in which she depicts herself in successive stages of her life.
One fact associated with this central theme is that, as early as Amazone with the Blue Forehead, the two different worlds in which Monika van Paemel spent her childhood years take on the sharply contrasted symbolic meaning which they will retain through all her later works. On the one side is the carefree outdoor life in the still unspoiled landscape of the Leie valley, and as she looks back on this life with nostalgia, it takes on the significance of a paradise forever lost. It is emotionally described as the place of the warm nest, the domain of caring mothers and a life of unthreatened communion with animals and plants. Opposed to this is the city, the place where her parents and grandparents live – and where grandmother Marguerite is the central figure – the feared and detested domain of the conservative bourgeoisie with its oppressive rules of behaviour and Catholic morality. For Gisela, this is where misery begins. She arrives in a man’s world of dominant, unimaginative ‘fathers’, for whom bricks and mortar seem to represent the greatest good. Her fierce rebellion against this forms the sarcastic exposé element in the book.
When Monika van Paemel wrote this book, she was a young woman in her mid-twenties, married and the mother of two daughters. Her marriage itself, which she no doubt did experience as oppressive, remains in the shadows, but her personal, mostly internalised view of life stands out all the more clearly. The main theme is an exuberant longing for love which is very closely associated with the longing for freedom. In general this means a love of the uninhibited pleasures of earthly life, but in more concrete terms it is love as the highest rule of conduct, as lusty erotic intimacy, as moral and emotional involvement in what is going on in the world. Each of her later books contains wonderful evocations of the sensual pleasure provided by her amorous lover, or the lack of it. These feelings are experienced in a quite physical, sensual way, and they include motherhood and in a broader sense concern and care for animals, for everything which arouses the writer’s inclination to protect and defend: her ‘herderscomplex’ (shepherd complex) as she calls it in the essay Experience (Het wedervaren, 1993).
At the very beginning, Monika van Paemel found the form and style which were to remain her permanent trademark, and these are within the modernist tradition. The structure of her novels is fragmentary and mosaic-like, the narrative lyrical, associative, contemplative and dramatic rather than epic; her way of writing is spontaneous, emotional but controlled by the power of form, dynamic, in turn staccato and measured. Her second novel, The Confrontation (De confrontatie, 1974), is the dramatised depiction of two opposing personalities within herself, in the form of Mirjam, who is forceful, ruthless and bitterly rebellious, and Zoe, who needs security, gentleness and harmony. It is not until the end of the book that the two come together again in an unstable equilibrium. Her third novel, Marguerite (1976) is an attempt to settle accounts with the figure of her grandmother, who is grippingly portrayed as a brisk businesswoman whose independence she identifies with, while at the same time she finds her mocking and narrow-minded bourgeois mentality repulsive.
It was not until nine years later, in 1985, that the substantial novel The Accursed Fathers (De vermaledijde vaders) appeared. This book caused a considerable stir among Dutch and Flemish critics, and was proclaimed a masterpiece. It can be read as a synthesis and at the same time as a monumental expansion of the triptych which preceded it. The author, this time in the form of Pamela, draws up a balance-sheet of the first half of her life. The self-portrait which emerges from this is illuminated from many different angles, and as well as the themes of the earlier novels it also includes a pointillistic picture of her own generation in the riotous emancipation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, together with the critical rethinking and disillusionment which followed them.
A whole gallery of family portraits is constructed around this picture, painted in lively brushstrokes and contained within the still larger framework of a period of Flemish history which is in turn linked with world history. The key theme here is war, which is associated with the figures of the father and grandfather. Hence these two take on a symbolic significance: the sons of the Flemish soldiers on the IJzer Front in the First World War fought on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. The sharp and violently emotional consciousness of the writer Pamela is always at the centre of all the events she evokes and the father functions as her greatest opponent. He is not only Pamela’s own personal father, he also stands for the whole caste of ‘gentlemen’, authoritarian rulers and cynical exploiters of all kinds, from generals to industrialists, who control and subjugate the world at will and plunder it like an occupied territory. In one of the fiercest, most bitter and most poignant parts of the novel, she finally settles accounts with him and his whole world in the form of a long, furious ‘letter to the father’. In these virulent pages, the personal struggle for liberation which runs right through Van Paemel’s works reaches its climax. Here again, the remembered images of her childhood years, surrounded by nature and caring foster mothers, form a positive counterbalance. When these contrasts are generalised, they broaden out into an archetypal conflict between the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ principles; coloured by the psychological motifs and emotional impulses of the author, the result is little less than the primordial struggle between Good and Evil which rules the world. This view certainly forms part of the female perspective from which the entire novel is written, but that by no means makes Pamela’s story susceptible to appropriation by the doctrinaire feminist movement. It is both too complex and too personal for this, too much the work of an obstinate writer who ‘doesn’t want to belong anywhere any more’, and who consciously sees isolation as her artistic vocation: she writes what she is, and that is a woman.
Van Paemel has won many prizes for her work, particularly for The Accursed Fathers, which gained one of the highest literary awards in the Low Countries, the Triennial State Prize for narrative prose, in 1987. Translations into Swedish (Fäders Förbannelse, 1989), French (Les pères maudits, 1990) and German (Verfluchte Väter, 1993), mean that this novel is also well-known abroad, particularly in Germany, where it has been well received by the authoritative journals.
It was not until 1992 that another large-scale novel, The First Stone (De eerste steen), appeared, again showing a close thematic link with the previous books, but clearly springing from other tragic events in the author’s life.
At the beginning of the story, her alter ego May, in a state of deep desperation and feeling that she is all alone in the world, flees from her home to Israel, the Promised Land of the Bible. However, in this foreign land where she had hoped to find forgetfulness and healing she is overwhelmed by obsessive memories. The direct cause of her sorrow, the suicide of her seventeen-year-old daughter, is revealed to the reader only gradually by a subtly applied narrative technique of suggestive delay. This theme is projected against the background of the whole of May’s known past, and her own birth under the auspices of death and violence is seen as the remote cause of the tragedy. A feeling of impotent guilt convinces her that it really would have been better if she had never lived, and the individual freedom which she had so prized turns out not to exist at all – since what could she do to prevent the fatal events anyway? This whole woeful story of a personal tragedy, told in a poignant style with a sense of controlled pathos, is elevated to a higher, suprapersonal level by May’s account of her experiences in modern-day Israel. After all, this country has also been born of a collective tragedy, and because of its past it is now subject to war and terrorism every day. The Jewish women with whom May temporarily lodges in a Jerusalem basement, and from whom she seeks protection and comfort, all turn out to have uprooted and divided lives behind them as well. This and other parallels, further enriched and reinforced by a number of symbolic motifs so that individual human destinies become interwoven with the destinies of others and a whole political situation, make it clear that with The First Stone Monika van Paemel has written a novel with a universal dimension.
By Paul de Wispelaere
Translated by Steve Judd
First published in The Low Countries, 1994