“In tempore semper suspecto”
It has often been put forward that Belgian authors who consider themselves realists turn to fantastic devices as a means of expressing that which could not otherwise be expressed; for Yves Wellens, the fantastic is a last resort perhaps too often reached for. The following short story “In tempore semper suspecto” starts as a speculative essay and ends in a fictional dialogue between a Fleming and a Walloon living in a contested area on Belgium’s “linguistic divide.” Neighbors who don’t know each other well, the two are introduced in separate paragraphs leaving their houses on the same street and taking the same route downtown, though for those who can neither read Flemish nor French, it can be hard to tell (and interesting to know). Despite writing for a Francophone readership, Wellens left the Fleming’s lines in Flemish, with their translations footnoted, to drive home the bilingual reality of Belgium. Throughout the translation, I’ve adjusted the text to address an audience that speaks neither French nor Flemish—a minor but fundamental change for which I wished to secure Wellens’ express permission. By translating the main prose body of the story, but referring readers to footnotes now—not only for the Flemish but also the French dialogue—I meant to re-orient the story from a Walloon point of view to an outsider’s.
To read more in this issue about Yves Wellens, Belgian Fabulist writing, and translator Edward Gauvin’s year of living in Brussels amid enduring political uncertainty, click here.
The borders were always shifting. Retreating on one side, advancing on another, regions quivering with unrest. These were dangerous territories, where a single toppled stone might lead to disaster, and the important thing was to know who might topple it.
No one had seen the first accident coming. True, it might still seem fairly mild: a brief tremor brought the beginnings of panic to the countryside around Mouscron, doing damage to a few farms, uprooting fences and signs. Streets and people were, for the most part, spared. The authorities had quickly taken control of the situation and proved reassuring.
The accidents that followed were more significant in other ways. First, of course, simply seeing them repeated at more or less regular intervals made them all the more unsettling, if strictly from a safety point of view for people and the area. But above all, it was becoming clear that a careful examination of the circumstances was necessary to determine the connections between accidents or some logical continuity that might explain them and, above all, provide advance warning. And so the newly affected locations were charted on a map: Herstappe, in the Leuven region, Flobecq, Comines-Warenton, Halle, and Linkebeek. A few days later, an earthquake of greater-than-previous magnitude tore up the streets of Sint-Genesius-Rode.
While scientists busied themselves feverishly trying to find out the causes of a phenomenon till now unheard of in these parts, relief workers got organized in the various localities concerned. Rescue teams had been on site since the start, following the accidents around, accruing duty hours, emergency calls, and recurrent bouts of fatigue. The army had brought substantial equipment (trucks, tents, field hospitals and surgical units, food, men) to the disaster areas: indeed, some of the wounded were in no condition to be transported to hospitals which, at any rate, were overflowing everywhere. In general, the organization of relief workers was hailed as a model of its kind, and in this regard it was undeniable, as though to validate the quality of their preparations and the resources devoted to them, that health conditions along the perimeter never degenerated.
However, some unfortunate tendencies were soon noted. The teams of rescue workers, from nearby communes as often Flemish as Walloon, did not speak the same language, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes a certain unwillingness arose, despite the circumstances. They didn’t understand each other. Their operations were divergent, occasionally at odds, their orders contradictory, and communication with those in charge confused: in short, the two parties displayed a great deal of mutual disregard, without any actual attempt to lessen it. Moreover, without anything being clearly expressed or announced, the Flemish were transported by preference to Leuven, Hasselt, Kortrijk, and—in a very marginal fashion—Brussel, while French speakers were evacuated instead to Liège, Namur, or—primarily—Bruxelles, even if an institution in another linguistic regime was closer. The gravity of the hour and the presence of international observers, come running from all over to offer their services, changed nothing.
As time passed and the accidents multiplied, an initial plan of operations came to be sketched out, and the next step considered; almost immediately afterwards, some voices raised higher than others made open mention of a suspicion that, since the beginning, had been on everyone’s minds.
In this context, what has since become commonly known as the “Rode Affair” was soon blown out of proportion in certain circles.
It must be said: these “accidents” had occasionally caused shifts along the “linguistic border” whose placement was the object of fierce negotiations between the two main communities sharing the country. This fracture line which, in Belgium, determined the territories and the sole language in which a person exercised his or her prerogatives, was admittedly entirely virtual: but even if, on the ground, no concrete border existed, the boundaries between the respective groups that it consecrated were reproduced on official maps all the same.
All the recent “accidents” were thus reconsidered in this light, and ever more loudly, voices called for every centimeter of the respective territories of the Flemish Region and the Walloon Region along this line to be examined. And so it was. With a final conclusion that due to these still unexplained events, the boundary line had indeed been altered. Oh, not by much, admittedly . . . but for his or her part, each person, fortified by these prior declarations, had mentally evaluated the symbolic cost of such a loss or conquest of land, however minuscule. From there the question inevitably proceeded to whether the Others hadn’t resorted to unusual and radical means to force the hand of fate and attempt to unlock, to their own advantage, a situation long paralyzed by surpassing mistrust and escalations.
And so it was that Flemish speakers immediately interpreted the unexpected earthquake in the commune of Sint-Genesius-Rode as a particularly vile maneuver on the part of Francophones to settle a question heavy with meaning for them. “Als bij toeval” or “Dat komt werkelijk goed uit!” went the most acerbic comments in the Flemish press.
Indeed, in examining a map of the country, one was struck by the lack of territorial continuity between Bruxelles and Wallonia, the two regions which, in Belgium, constituted the “Communauté française.” Well! Even if the seismic upheaval hadn’t entirely resolved the issue in this regard, the “corridor” that stood in the way of this continuity (wholly constituted, as a matter of fact, by the municipality of Rode) had been greatly infringed upon, and as a result, in the wake of the elements, was no more than a narrow intestine a few hundred meters wide—a fortiori, next to nothing in such a small country. Frustrated and vindictive, Flemish speakers immediately saw the benefit that Francophones—who for their part tried to remain calm and discreet, avoiding all expressions of triumph—would surely derive from this situation in future negotiations.
Despite the apparent absurdity of such a theory (how indeed to imagine controlling natural forces and moreover, with such precise ulterior motives?), it was nevertheless reviewed and discussed with imperturbable seriousness. An emergency session of Parliament was called on the evidence of unverifiable rumors and unfounded assertions. An investigative committee was created in a hurry, but right away its members, designated on the basis of political sway in Parliament (and as a result composed of a Flemish majority) began accusing each other of the worst pretensions and depravities, which immediately reduced any possibility of conditional mediation to zero. Under high supervision, land surveyors were called upon to travel the “border,” but soon revealed that great pressures had been brought to bear on them to swing their curves and calculations toward one camp or the other. Accusations of corruption rang out in the aftermath, with no one seeing fit to supply the slightest bit of proof.
The hour of strategists and imprecators was once more at hand, all the more so since the quakes seemed suddenly to have moved on, and provisionally left the national territory behind.
Tensions ran high round the clock in Rode, exacerbated by the continued presence of foreign reporters who’d flocked there in great numbers to provide updates on the death throes of a disintegrating state. Having ingratiated themselves everywhere, they were constantly called to witness the bitter remonstrations of residents—which seemed to suit them to a tee, since there they found material for blunt articles or footage of local figures expressing themselves with great frankness.
One of these “local color” reports, produced by a British channel, was seen all over the world. It consisted of a static shot, drawn out over several long minutes, of a quarrel between two locals (each backed by those closest to them, whose figures could be made out in the shadows) who were heckling each other violently, but retained enough self control never to express themselves in the other’s tongue; yet it was obvious that each understood, if not every word, then at least the gist of what his opponent was saying, since the retorts were always fitting. Suddenly, another man popped up in the frame and did his best to calm them, speaking first to one and then the other, each in his own language. Later he was identified as some kind of scholar, a retired professor, a book-lover who extolled the virtues of respect for others. From the slow-motion loop every channel played continuously day and night, it was impossible to tell for sure just how the unlucky fellow wound up on the ground. Had he been shoved? By whom? Had he simply stumbled (there was a slight slope to the street where the events occurred)? It wasn’t even certain any jostling had occurred: the camera, concentrating on the three characters, nevertheless did not follow the bookseller’s fall, such that a gap suddenly appeared in the middle of the frame without any explanation for the disappearance. A few minutes later, another shot showed a journalist trying to gather first impressions from the scholar on the ground, but she wasn’t bent over him for long. One of the two protagonists, at the height of his fury, suddenly seized her microphone and started hurling insults, which naturally didn’t go unanswered. The device was the object of a bitter struggle and passed from hand to hand; soon the control room in London decided to cut the sound, then went straight into the next regularly scheduled program. No one was able to see the bookseller get up painfully and walk off without a backward glance.
It cannot be denied that these episodes, which occurred almost daily, figured heavily in the decision on the part of editors-in-chief in most European and American capitals to set up press rooms in what had become the epicenter of the conflict. And so, beside the space reserved for seeing to the wounded, a series of prefab buildings went up. A sort of bivouac formed, which remained full for weeks and was soon more popular than the neighboring camp.
Ever in search of spectacular images, news crews crisscrossed the township, following recently created patrols. A few extremist leaders from outside the area had gathered in “brigades” and were trying hard to recruit on the spot, to drag citizens down the path of violence. Luckily these little groups were a tiny minority. But their ability to occupy center stage through their actions—for example, preventing residents of the other community to return to their houses and recover this or that item—just like their never-disproven propensity to present themselves a “victims” of the other side, insured them a positively disproportionate audience. The only goal of these bullies—whose strikes and forays were all the more feared for the stash of arms they loudly claimed to have “somewhere”—was to maintain the integrity of their territory. But which, exactly?
For everyone in Belgium, no matter their claims or exclusions, was now undergoing a similar dilemma in danger of giving way at any moment to an existential tragedy. Were we indeed to accept the new territorial situation this series of natural accidents had caused, as a prelude to negotiations for a modified partition and the establishment of a new “border”? Could we let this band of radicals do as they wished and in this way “hush up” their attempts to grab or recover a few meters of land, at the risk of creating incidents other countries would view poorly? Should we stand firm on prior positions—thus “holding on” to an outdated situation and looking like incurable nostalgists unable to adapt to new conditions?
Or, quite the opposite, shouldn’t we exploit the circumstances and use them to push for the end of this country, once and for all? And incidentally, why haven’t there been more geological accidents recently?
* * * *
That Wednesday, Stefaan Marcke left his house on Weidestraat around 5pm. He was a well-built man of about forty who, after selling his shares in a company he’d started a decade ago with his brother, had allowed himself six months of R&R to see to his youngest daughter’s education. After picking her up from the school on Roseweideweg, he’d spent the afternoon with her. His wife Ann had come home earlier than usual and suggested he take a short walk to relax himself after the tensions of the last few weeks. He told her he’d probably pop in at his friend Stan’s bookstore on Nieuwstraat, but wouldn’t stay long—and definitely wouldn’t go with him to the bistro next door. In the end, though he gave it a longing glance, he decided not to step in the store. He went down Termeulenstraat, crossed Zoniënwoudlaan, picked up the street again on the other side, then turned down Stationstraat and at a leisurely pace reached the square in front of the Gemeentehuis.
That Wednesday, Robert Waucquiez left his apartment on the Avenue de Narcisses around 5:05. He was a balding man with a bit of a stoop and a lined face who, for better or worse, had been gnawed by feelings of guilt since the death of his eldest daughter three years earlier. He’d resolved not to wait for his wife and other daughter, who’d probably made a detour to the shops on the Rue Neuve. For a moment, he toyed with the idea of showing up at the bookstore his friend Claude ran on the Rue du Ruisseau, but decided against it—he wasn’t in the mood to chat with anyone, not even about books, and his nerves, with the tensions of the last few weeks, had been put severely to the test. Still, he made an effort so as not to feel completely at loose ends and wound up shaking it off. Once outside, he sniffed the fresh air on the doorstep to his building, turned down the Rue des Touristes, then down the Avenue de la Pépinière. Further off, he walked along one side of the station and, with a sullen air, reached the square in front of the Maison Communale.
The two men passed each other in the center of the square. Both longtime residents of the town, they’d often met, without ever really becoming close. Even this time, neither of them intended to stop and greet the other, and yet they both did.
“Cela faisait quelque temps, non?” said Waucquiez.
“’t is inderdaad waar . . . ”
“Oui.” The shoulders of the man old before his time seemed to slump a bit further, but he managed to hide his feelings and continued to speak to the other in even tones. “Ta santé, pas de soucis?”
“Nee, geen enkel. En jij?”
“Oh, half en half? C’est très fluctuant. Ma dépression n’est toujours pas tout à fait derrière moi, et cela influe parfois sur le physique . . . Sans compter les derniers événements.”
“À savoir? Je hebt toch nog altijd een dak boven je hoofd?”
“Oui, nous avons été épargnés, je te remercie. Mais quelques amis ont perdu leurs maisons. Nous en avons hébergé l’un ou l’autre, en attendant que des parents les accueillent dans d’autres régions. Tout cela est vraiment pénible! Il y a des coupures d’eau et d’électricité, des routes sont défoncées, le ravitaillement n’est toujours pas assuré, le moindre déplacement prend des allures de chemin de croix. Je ne veux pas vivre en autarcie, mais cela commence fort à y ressembler.”
“We kunnen niet nalaten het ergste te vrezen. Ik vernam dat de wetenschappers, die de kwestie bestuderen, geen enkele verklaring kunnen voorleggen. Tenzij hierin een ‘hemelstraf’ kan gezien worden (maar dat kan ik niet geloven), zullen we misschein nog lang moeten leven met deze épée de Damoclès boven ons hoofd, die ons op elk ogenblik kan raken . . . ”
“Et toutes ces bandes qui circulent sans aucun contrôle! On se fait arrêter à tout bout de champ et on est sommé de fournir des explications sur ses faits et gestes, sur les objets qu’on aurait pu récupérer dans un terrain vague, comme si l’on était des pillards! Qui sont ces gens? Que viennent-ils faire ici?”
“Daarover wil ik niet praten! We worden als verdachte—en dus heel snel als beschuldige—behandeld. Niets is nog ‘normaal’ in deze situatie. Voor ons zijn ook al onze merken vervaagd. Je moet niet denken dat we nu nog alles bij ons kunnen herkennen!”
“Si ça continue, ça sera bientôt l’anarchie! D’ailleurs, c’est déjà l’anarchie! J’aurai donc connu ça . . . ”
“’t is zoals een oorlog zonder strijd! In elk geval, als men de achtergrond ziet, zal er nog veel tijd nodig zijn om alles herop te bouwen. En, volgens mij, de beslissing om te weten hoe we heropbouwen zal nog veel meer tijd vragen . . . ”
The two men fell silent. They remained motionless, opposite each other, for the most part avoiding one another’s gaze. A sudden feeling of intense cold flooded them and made them tremble slightly.
Then they heard a rumbling drawing closer, and felt themselves hurled backward, each to his own side, as the rift beneath their feet widened toward the horizon.
Yves Wellens is the author of four books of short stories: Le cas de figure (Didier Devillez, 1995), Contes des jours d’imagination (Didier Devillez, 1996), and Incisions locales (Luce Wilquin, 2002), and D’outre-Belgique (Le Grand Miroir, 2007). Winner of the John Dryden Translation prize and a contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, Edward Gauvin is the translator of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s selected stories A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010), which was awarded the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award and was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award.
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