The latest addition to my website is Pierre Mertens‘ Une paix royale [A Royal Peace]. This is a superb book about a Belgian called Pierre Raymond who is now a fairly reluctant travel guide, though this is something he has done for most of his life. However, he now needs a new focus and that focus will be his own country. In the column that he writes for his agency’s travel magazine, he intends to write about his own country and will focus on two specific aspects – the Belgian royal family and Belgian professional cyclists. His interest in the royal family stems from when he was thirteen and he was knocked off his bicycle by a car, whose passengers were King Baudouin and his father Leopold III (who had abdicated in his son’s favour). Raymond gives us considerable detail about the royal family, particularly Leopold III, who was controversial for having stayed in Belgium after the German invasion in World War II and considered by many Belgians to have compromised himself. This book was controversial as his portrait of the royal family is not always flattering. However, we also learn much about Pierre’s life and his family, a family which does divorce much better than it does marriage, as well as learning about the sometimes troubled Belgian cycling fraternity. Pierre gets to meet one of the most famous Belgian cyclists, as well as Leopold III’s widow and second wife as well as King Baudouin. Overall, this novel works very well even if the considerable detail about the royal family could put off some non-Belgians (though not me). Sadly, it has not been translated into English and is unlikely to be translated.
The most recent addition to my website is Pierre Mertens‘ Les éblouissements (Shadowlight), Mertens’ best-known novel. It tells the story of German poet Gottfried Benn, starting with a section on his participation in a Belgian literary festival in Knokke in 1952 but then with each subsequent chapter taking place ten years after the preceding one, starting in 1906, when he was twenty, ending with his death in 1956. Mertens gives us a portrait of Benn the doctor (he was a doctor for most of his adult life, specialising, initially, in venereal diseases), Benn the man (three wives, lots of prostitutes, a survivor of two world wars, the first spent mainly in Brussels as a military doctor, the second in Berlin, where he was banned by the Nazis from both medicine and publishing) and, of course, Benn the poet. We see little of his actual poetry, though he does discuss poetry and other art forms with family and friends but we do see a man who observes life (and, very much so, death) and clearly uses his life experiences in his poetry. Mertens gives us a superb portrait of this complex man, right up to his death. This novel has deservedly been acclaimed and, though currently out of print, it has been translated into English and is fairly easy to find.
The latest addition to my website is Patrick Roegiers‘ Le Bonheur des Belges [The Happiness of the Belgians]. It is both a response to Hugo Claus‘ Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) as well as to the political and economic crisis Belgium has been facing in recent times. Belgium is the only country where I have visited every town in the country so I have a certain sympathy with and interest in the country and its plight. Roegiers gives us a roller-coaster of a ride through Belgium’s (relatively short) history, its institutions, its culture and its problems, telling his tale with great humour, happy both to mock as well as celebrate and peopling his novel with a whole host of living and dead Belgians, most of whom you have probably never have heard of. It is narrated by an eleven-year old boy who has no name and no parents, who wanders through Belgium, both geographically and chronologically (he is at the Battle of Waterloo and in World War I, for example) meeting people from Victor Hugo to Jacques Brel to Pieter Brueghel and hearing their tale and views while, in the background, Roegiers throws in his comments, witticisms and views. He is not afraid to confront problems, e.g. the Walloon-Fleming issue, and not afraid to gently mock such issues, all the while celebrating Belgium and Belgianness. It is wonderful book, full of joie de vivre. Sadly, given that language (the use of Belgian French and French vs Flemish) is of such importance, I wonder whether it will ever be translated into English. However, if you do read French, I can heartily recommend it. Bonne lecture!
The latest addition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Biographie de la faim (The Life of Hunger). This one is similar to many of her other novels – the story of the young Amélie Nothomb on her travels. In this case, she follows the idea of hunger, not just for food but for anything we want but cannot easily have, while, at the same time, recounting her life as a child and the daughter of a Belgian diplomat. Japan, Bangladesh, Beijing, New York, Burma, Laos and Japan again are all grist to Nothomb’s mill as we get the usually quirky view of exotic cultures as seen from the point of view of a somewhat eccentric Belgian girl/woman as well as a host of amusing anecdotes. If you know Nothomb, you will know what to expect and, if you don’t, you will find this very amusing and pleasant reading.
The latest addition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Ni d’Ève Ni d’Adam (Tokyo Fiancée), another quirky novel from the Belgian author. This one, like many of her other books, is about one of her visits to Japan and the main theme is Western-Japanese cultural differences. As the English title indicates, she meets a Japanese man and they become engaged. She had been teaching him French, which he is studying, not very successfully, at university. As always, Nothomb is witty but also insightful about Japanese culture and the Japanese view of Westerners, as well as Western views of the Japanese. Nothomb is one of those authors, like Joyce Carol Oates, whom I find difficult to keep up with, as she is prolific, producing a new novel every year. I plan to read one or two more soon.