The great nations of the world, the ones whose internal or external intrigues are guaranteed global headlines, all seem to have a neighbor that serves the role of awkward younger sibling. I’ve lived in two of them. Believe me, I get tired of two questions: people in Ireland thinking that my stubbornly persisting Canadian accent is American, and friends back in Canada asking if I get over to London much these days. (Mind you, I’ve done the same sort of thing as I’ve been fond of describing Dublin as a pocket-sized London.) Russia has Ukraine (although that is an absolutely tragic family feud) and Germany has Austria in a role reversal from their places in the 18th century. And then, of course, there is France and Belgium, the latter of which is the focus of this incredible book of short stories Brussels Noir (Akashic Books).
There is a lot more to Belgium and its capital Brussels than Hercule Poirot and stacks of EU bureaucracy. Its is the producer of the majority of bestselling beer brands and French Fries haughty original les pommes frites. It is also a country and city home to two indigenous languages and cultures, plus a large African population as a reminder of a colonial past that should be a shaming mark of all too many nations that desired the trappings of a great power.
Not that I was anyone’s idea of an expert on Belgium. In fact, most of what I knew was in that previous paragraph. But I’m learning, through books and lately from getting to know more of those books’ authors. The most appreciated lesson has been what an incredibly subtle and nuanced literature there is in Belgium.
One should always hesitate and reconsider the position before making any general pronouncement about any nation or people’s general characteristics. After all, most of our worst wars began that way and seem about to begin again. However, just as the combination of centuries of servitude and millennia of rainy weather birthed Irish ironic wit and melancholy, so too do the stories of Belgian writers carry their national history within their subconscious, within their geist.
How so? If I had to label it all with just one short phrase ,that phrase would be reflective connectivity. When old conflicts cause the demarcation of – to be honest about it – arbitrary borders to be placed around nation-states, particularly when those nation-states contain multiple cultural solitudes that yet still must mingle and interplay for commerce and governance, a creative citizen of one culture cannot help but see another neighborhood’s life through the experience of their own, while equally ruminating as to how their own is appreciated (or not) by the other. The writer and the writer’s work so becomes a sort of commuter train that goes through the different landscapes every day. The writer gazes out the window, sees the differences until the sights are so common that the differences start to vanish from the conscious until such a time when that writer seeks to describe these places to readers from other lands.
Such is the viewpoint of an excellent short story such as “The Other Half of a Life” by Ayerdhal. It quite literally takes the reader on exactly such a commuter trip. The story itself is set in the near future, the coming dystopia, a Brexiteer’s worst nightmare come true of a bureaucracy gone mad ethnic cleansing entire districts to the point where a worker’s greatest desire is only to be allowed to work from home. Avoid the commute, avoid the danger.
There too, as an international city, Brussels finds as all the Londons, Parises, New Yorks and Romes of the world do, that their most shameful aspects – the ones that are not postcard worthy – are the same ones that titillate the visiting tourist. They want to head off piste and do it half pissed. Patrick Delperdance perfectly nails this in his story “Only Muddy Streams Flow in the Darkness.” This is a superb example of pitch black humor as a horny tourist guide tries to track down a lost sheep from his group who has abandoned his fiancée for the joys of a bit of whoring on the Rue d’Aerschot.
Still, that is just geography. This reflective connectivity also operates within the structural choices made within a given story. Words, metaphors, turns of phrase; all of these are also landscapes seen on the repetitive commute. I refer you to a writer I much admire, Bob Van Laerhoven and his story “Paint it Black.” Beyond the overt fabric of two Belgian male protagonists – one a dissolute white art forger, the other a slightly insane African art forger – there are delicate patterns within the weave. A lethal car accident is described early on in this 30 page narrative and so when a second car trip happens, when the white forger describes dangerous speeds and compares himself to Stirling Moss, well of course death is about to occur … except it doesn’t, or at least not quite yet. And there too forgery itself is a perfect metaphor for the cultural mosaic. We say we are the one thing when in fact we both are and aren’t that thing. A Mondrian forgery is four things all at once. It is a vision of the original artist, an exercise in craft by the forger, a commodity for the criminal commissioner, and a conversation piece for the eventual buyer. After all, who enjoys a writer’s bottle of wine the most? Is it the farmer who tends the grapes, the estate that bottles it with care, the vintner who sells it on, the writer who draws from it some inspiration, or the reader? Reflective connectivity. Quite a concept is it not?
Of course to do this sort of writing, creating vintages from vine berries, one requires a lot of patience; the same sort of patience that smaller countries must also have as part of their character for they cannot just demand their way to their desires. That leads me to what is, in my mind, the little masterpiece within Brussels Noir, a story called “In the Shadow of the Tower” by Émilie De Béco. The story itself is a revenge plot, but oh what a great plot it is as a young woman takes some dozen years or more to avenge the suicide of her father who had been hounded to death by a sensationalist media. Here the commuter trip is one of time as well as space. Lydie, the avenging daughter, must follow the career steps of her target, bit by bit, course by course, interview by interview, assignment by assignment, until she is at a time and place where her goal can be achieved in superb and justifiably vicious detail. Émilie De Béco is, as they say, one to look for and I intend to look for other works by her as soon as I finish writing this review.
Which, I think, comes about now. Brussels Noir is a volume of excellence, made for submerging into contemplative depth. These stories aren’t page turners, they’re thought provokers. Enjoy. ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. Author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications.