This essay accompanies Edward Gauvin’s translation of “In tempore semper suspecto” by Yves Wellens, which can be read here.
Whatever is the matter with Belgium? I was often asked during my year there, by those even aware, if dimly, of its prevailing political irregularities. For those who aren’t—and who can blame you?—I’ll put it plainly. Since its founding in 1830, Belgium has consisted of two main regions: Wallonia, whose inhabitants speak French (though the French might sniff at this), and Flanders, whose inhabitants speak Flemish (though the Dutch disdain the variant), with a southeastern pocket minority that speaks German. Since the federal elections in June 2010, the failure of the Flemish and Walloon parties to form a working coalition has left the country without a government for a period that has broken records set by Cambodia, Iraq, and… Belgium itself, riven by longstanding divisions of language and culture, but also newer ones of policy and finance. (For the latest count, down to minutes and seconds, go here.)
Of course, on the face of it, nothing is the matter. “In fact,” opined author Patrick Delperdange, “everything seems to be working just a tiny bit better.” It was May, and we were driving to the award ceremony for the Prix Renaissance de la Nouvelle, a Francophone short story prize administered by the Service for the Promotion of Letters of the Ministry of the French Community. In the course of thirty minutes, we had passed through five of the Brussels Capital Region’s nineteen municipalities and, briefly, the province of Flemish Brabant, before reaching Ottignies in Walloon Brabant. (Ottignies is twinned with Louvain-La-Neuve, a university town founded when linguistic quarrels in the ‘60s led to a schism of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium’s oldest university, into separate French- and Flemish-speaking institutions.) I mention this mess of names for two reasons. The first is to give a sense of the historical and geographical density in play (“Belgium is small country,” a waiter once mournfully shrugged as he pulled the table away from the banquette so my girlfriend could get in). The second is because one reason often given for the country’s continued functioning despite the federal freeze-up is the relative autonomy at every conceivable level: regional, provincial, municipal, local. It makes for a lot of governmental redundancy, but then again, Belgium was synonymous with byzantine bureaucracy long before the EU made Brussels its home. “If you ever wanted to prove that things were just fine without a government, you couldn’t have asked for a better demonstration,” added Delperdange, echoing claims made in the French press. But his cheer may have reflected as much the recent record run of sunny days as most Belgians’ generally casual attitude toward the crisis.
Do Belgians really not care? It’s hard to tell just what will jar them from jocular self-deprecation. If Flanders wanted to throw in its lot with Holland when the latter opened a tourism office in Tokyo, that was fine, but let Flanders throw in brochures on Brussels too, and Walloons began throwing up their hands. “Faut pas déconner”—seriously guys, cut it out. For Brussels, despite being the capital of both Belgium and Flanders, is an administratively independent region unto itself, and the contested child in the national divorce for which the largest Flemish party, Bart de Wever’s separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), has been pushing. When I moved to Brussels a year ago, the threat of secession was still common fodder for wisecracks. “If Flanders goes, then next it’ll be Sicily, and Scotland, and the Basques…” I was told when I tried to discuss it in earnest. “It won’t happen.” According to poet, editor, and arts administrator Christian Libens, the situation was comically backward: “All populations seeking independence—Corsica, Quebec—are minorities. The Flemish are a majority.” It wasn’t until the New Year that the lack of government began to worry Belgians, but then the refrain seemed to be: “What will they think of us?” They being the rest of the world.
The fact is, no one did spare much thought for Belgium. I took this concern over international opinion as a display of national character: the Belgian obsession with decorousness and respectability, everywhere manifest from Magritte’s impassively bowler-hatted men to the impeccably bourgeois facades of Ixelles, where I lived. In January, there was a flutter of international press coverage: stories in Time, The New Yorker. King Albert II asked interim Prime Minister Leterme to craft a budget and assuage investors. On the 23rd, more than 40,000 people marched in Brussels parade called Shame.be: shame on the politicos for persisting in stalemate. The night before the demonstration, I met a Walloon art student who was planning on marching. We were chatting in French, and drinking with a young doctor who had enough Flemish from one grandmother to understand but not speak it. By the end of the night, he hadn’t convinced her to go home with him, though he had convinced not to march.
So the case for the situation being hopeless but not serious is, like all the best evidence, anecdotal, like all the best history, oral. Sometimes dinner parties decide history in ways daylight affairs only confirm. Take heart in the fact that impasse is built into Belgian government, founded on an unspoken agreement. The Flemish, as they comprise a majority, will not use their numbers to force legislation on the Walloons, while the Walloons, as a minority, will not expressly thwart Flemish attempts at legislation. This is gentlemanly to the point of gridlock.
But compromise has traditionally been considered part of the Belgian character. It’s certainly the spirit of Brussels, if not all Belgium. “Look at Antwerp,” said historian Roel Jacobs. “Their mascot is the hero Brabo hurling the giant’s hand he severed into the river. Brussels’ mascot is a pissing child—but that is the secret of our survival. There is an old joke that goes: How does someone from Brussels say No? Oui, sans doute.”
Potbellied, bon vivant, the perfectly trilingual Jacobs proudly sports a button that says “Ik ben een slechte Vlaming,” mocking De Wever’s division of Flemings into “goede” (the separatist-supporting provinces) and “bad” (Brussels-dwelling cosmopolites). “We are self-effacing, self-deprecating, unassuming,” he explained. For centuries the land that is now Belgium was the battleground of Europe, suffering successive occupations, an already muddled identity further muddied by the footprints of trampling armies. “Above all, we have a sense of humor about it.” He shrugged. “Nous sommes belges.”
I can’t say that after a year I know to define Belgitude, but like Justice Potter Stewart and pornography, I know it when I see it. It is difficult to sum up something that defines itself in relation, reaction, subversion, or mere contrast to other identities. Perhaps, as Luc Sante notes in his Belgian memoir, The Factory of Facts:
“Belgium is indeed a shimmering mist that only takes on mass and weight in times of trouble. The country certainly never makes it into international news until a major catastrophe occurs there… It may well be that… the contempt or indifference displayed by the rest of the world, spur national feeling more than any mediocre exhortations to pride ever could.”
Belgium as Brigadoon, a fiction, a shimmering mist… was ever a land a better fit for fabulism? Yet in a typically Belgian spirit of contradiction, writer Yves Wellens, while professing Borges as his greatest influence, also declares himself a committed realist. He admires what he terms American social realists—Roth and Dos Passos, but also Pynchon and DeLillo—and maintains that no Belgian author writing in French has yet managed to marry fiction and history on a scale at once intimate and grand as the Fleming Hugo Claus did in his sweeping World War II portrait The Sorrow of Belgium.
For Wellens, “surreal” is a buzzword too often bandied about in modern-day Belgium, a word of surrender before thickets of human error whose intricacies, no matter how byzantine, can be untangled, with blame plausibly assigned. 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 Wellens, the fantastic is a last resort perhaps too often reached for. Nevertheless impossible elements pepper D’outre-Belgique [Beyond Belgium], from which “In Tempore Semper Suspecto” is taken: a collection of eight stories, each considering some aspect of the nation’s dissolution (language, immigration, art, censorship, gentrification, the far right).
When Wellens completed the manuscript in 2005, he was an author with three collections of short prose under his belt, two of which had been shortlisted for the Prix Rossel, Francophone Belgium’s top literary prize. His editor at the time was completely uninterested, finding the material farfetched, but with the intercession of a few writer friends, D’outre-Belgique found a home at Le Grand Miroir, one of Francophone Belgium’s premier independent presses, in fall 2006, just before October elections put the far-right Flemish Interest (VB) party in power in Antwerp. It was a wake-up call. Everything happened quickly after that. The end of Belgium, heretofore unheard of, became a publicly broached topic; Wellens was sought out as a prophet; and in December HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmcsA9DMPTw” The Flemish Secession Hoax, aka HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flemish_Secession_hoax” Bye Bye Belgium, aired on primetime TV. You’d have to go back to Welles’ War of the Worlds for a broadcast that so deeply rattled a credulous nation.
Wellens excels, in his short fiction, at using an oddly formal, even bureaucratic language, to lay before us all the known facts of a case about which, in the end, little is known, leaving an air of faint menace hanging over, even conjured by, the proceedings he details. He manages to smuggle into this formal language damning irony, and in “Tempore,” which seems more prescient and pertinent now than when first written, certain targets are clear: bureaucratic infighting, media sensationalism, a bewildered populace trying to live ordinary lives. While Wellens may have mispredicted the extent of media interest, he has not overestimated its obfuscations. Papers from neighbors like France and England regularly exaggerate the direness of the Belgium’s condition, and usually with mocking glee. Despite his pessimism, Wellens refuses to jump to conclusions, acknowledging the astonishing, even heroic difficulty of managing so small a territory with such vast regional differences. He qualifies peace in Northern Ireland as “almost miraculous,” and hopes that Belgium, long vaunted for its lack of conflict, can live up to its reputation, rather than going the way of Palestine or Lebanon.
Wellens is a stern man of rare seriousness who seemed grumpy even in the sunshine of the Bar du Matin, where we met. Unlike the Brussels bars near the Bourse immortalized by Wellens in D’Outre-Belgique, this one did not serve half en half, the Flemish concoction of equal parts white and sparkling wine whose name had passed into Belgian slang for “so-so.” So we settled for one of the six hundred varieties of beer.
“You’ll notice in ‘Tempore’ it’s the Walloon who says half en half,” the meticulous Wellens remarked. “Instead of comme çi, comme ça.”
“Tempore,” which starts as a speculative essay, 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.
“Why do you think there’s been so little international press interest?” I asked Wellens.
“There aren’t any great ideas at stake here,” he replied. “Just details of state technical operations. Nothing for reporters to latch on to. This is an existential dispute, but on a practical level.
“Nothing has happened, and nothing will continue to happen for quite a while, maybe even till the elections in October 2012. Meanwhile, Europe won’t let us fall apart. Belgium is a laboratory for the European project on a country-sized scale.” He slumped, briefly morose. “But we haven’t seen anything yet.”
By July, my last month in Belgium, the rain had returned, and threatened to stay through August. Gloom and cold hung over Brussels—business as usual, but somehow newly disappointing after the clement spring. I readied to leave a country chastened by the King’s annual address on the National Holiday (July 21), entirely devoted to a firm reprimand of the politicians who had failed to form a government. Over the course of the year, I had acquired many frequent shopper points at Carrefour, and stepped into my smaller, local branch to try and redeem them for a coupon.
“Oh,” said the man at the checkout counter with evident disinterest. “We don’t do those here. You have to go down toward the Bois de la Cambre.”
“You mean the big Carrefour by Bascule?”
“No, not that far,” he sniffed. “Two stops down on the tram.”
“But that’s a smaller branch too. Are you sure they’ll do it?”
“Monsieur,” he replied, “nothing is sure.”
His answer seemed to recapitulate a year’s worth of convivial resignation and cheerful adjournments to brasseries for a drink. It was, oddly enough, a way of life I suddenly felt a pang of affection for. In France, his pronouncement would have been tantamount to a knell of philosophical doom. In Belgium it was tinged with quotidian pettiness: uncertainty, like the fate of the country itself, of the most benign and even banal sort.
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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