Peter Verhelst takes mythology and turns it into something very dreamlike: minotaurs who aren’t half man half horse, but half man half motorcycle, and the prostitutes don’t sell their bodies but stories (the subtitle of the book is “a story brothel.” But the most interesting thing is the language, a hybrid form between poetry and prose
Peter Verhelst, Tonguecat: A Novel, Trans. by Sherry Marx, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003.
"Tonguecat tells the story of a city’s decline into chaos and violence upon the arrival of Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. In the Netherlands, the novel has been described as “a cross between Jorge Luis Borges’s mystical labyrinth and William Gibson’s futuristic sprawl” (The Rights Report).
As the novel opens, Prometheus abandons a mythical, primeval world ruled by violence for a cold, earthly city that is perpetually in renewal—a caricature of the city in which we live.
Once descended, Ulrike, an orphaned girl whose body produces music, guides Prometheus though the slums of the city. Prometheus finds himself in a counterculture of squatters, junkies, and storytelling whores—called tonguecats. The fire of resistance is smoldering all through the city; although the court continues to function, opposition to the monarchy mounts, and the king leaves his palace in search of human warmth.
Peter Verhelst’s story, together with the city, bursts apart at the seams. Tonguecat is a visionary novel—and a tour de force of imaginative and surreal writing."
"Just over 40, Belgian novelist and critic Verhelst edits a literary magazine and won two top prizes in the Netherlands for this phantasmagoric novel, his first to be translated into English and published in the U.S. Like Carla Harryman's post-apocalyptic, sexually supercharged Gardner of Stars, Ben Marcus's much gentler Notable American Women: A Novel or Alice Notley's recent excoriations of the present, this book turns on explorations of gender as refracted through social hierarchies that have collapsed into haphazard, "warmth"-seeking violence, fueled by rumor, desperation and inarticulate despair. Each of its eight chapters is narrated by, and named for, a different character (excluding a short poetic epilogue). The book opens with "Strawberry Mouth" during the year Zero, when, instead of a global warming-based inferno, the country freezes, the king orders the word "winter" to be banned and the young male narrator's family members die one by one, leaving him to survive on the street: "us, eat, survive." Religion fails. The king evaporates in orgiastic communion with the "Girl-with-Red-Hair." That's just the first 20 pages, but Verhelst goes on to confront possible pasts and futures from multiple perspectives. "Wallwoman" is confronted by the dead, who leave just as quickly "to gorge on my stories." "Fleshcrown" begins his narrative: "I'm the king, I'm not the king," and may or may not be a murderous, deluded soldier. "Firehair" wryly describes court life during one of her eight other lives. Verhelst produces a disorienting allegorical charge out of the dissonance between the fairy tale-like evocations of the court and what king and subjects actually practice: war, sexual mayhem and random death. But readers will have to be predisposed to recognize the actual present-where war, sexual brutality and random death figure prominently for many-in the subterranean nightmare described here." - Publishers Weekly
"The second Belgian on the list, this time an author from the Flemish-speaking part of the country. Peter Verhelst’s ‘Tonguecat’ won the biggest literary prize in Belgium and he is a very respected author, although his novels aren’t always that accessible. In ‘Tonguecat’ he takes mythology and turns it into something very dreamlike. The book contains a lot of stories that, for example, involve minotaurs who aren’t half man half horse, but half man half motorcycle, and the prostitutes in Tongecuat don’t sell their bodies but stories. The subtitle of the book is “a story brothel.” But the most interesting thing about Verhelst is the language he uses. It’s like an hybrid form between poetry and prose." - Listverse
"These days, the pursuit of perfection is all around us, a pursuit that is based on the notion that we can alter the world to suit us. But, according to recent theories, this view is untenable and perfect order always ultimately degenerates into chaos. In Tongue Cat, Peter Verhelst uses the various stories to describe how a city falls apart and comes to grief in chaos and violence.
The destructive powers are summoned by Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. In the novel, he swaps the mythical, primeval world, ruled by violence, for an earthly city, in which modernisation is taking place ever more rapidly and renewal has been elevated to the status of an aspiration – a caricature of the city in which we live.
Once having descended, Prometheus is taken in tow by Ulrike. She leads him to the slums of the city. Prometheus finds himself in an underground counterculture of squatters, junkies and whores. The latter are called tongue cats. But it is not only on the underbelly of society that the fire of resistance is smouldering, it is also brewing in the higher echelons, which becomes clear when the king leaves his palace in search of human warmth. Although the court continues to function for a while, opposition to his absence gradually increases and finally degenerates into a frenzy of chaos and violence. Order is an illusion. That ultimately also applies to the book itself. Naturally, the writer cannot escape the conclusion that his story world, too, forms a closed structure in which the fire of self-destruction is smouldering.
In the masterly final chapter, Verhelst lets the story, together with the city, burst apart at the seams. Tongkat is far more than a visionary novel about our society, it is a literary tour de force." - Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature
"There are some novels that take such a different path from what a reader is used to that they are absorbed more than read. In other words, they cannot be truly appreciated until they are completed, because their ultimate purpose is hidden from the reader by original forms and language. "Tonguecat" is undeniably one of those novels. Peter Verhelst has created a world that is disturbingly familiar to our own, and yet populated by constructs that for all their apparent normalcy are vastly different from anything in our experience.
Set in what I would assume to be the relatively near future, Tonguecat occurs in an unnamed kingdom where the world has frozen over in a rapid ice age. As such, all life begins to revolve around warmth, as a practical matter, but also as an ideology or philosophy. Crime revolves around seeking warmth, and as the cold bleaches the world of hope, dreams become the preferred currency.
Thus, the setting is relatively simply described, but the plot is far more difficult. First, Verhelst has chosen to tell his story from multiple points of view. Much like Mitchell's "Ghostwritten", each section stands on its own, but the ultimate purpose, or overarching narrative thread, isn't revealed until the final chapters. Verhelst plays with themes of free will, truth and desire, and comments on our own world where perception is frequently treated as reality, even when it stands starkly at odds with the truth.
Beyond this unusual narrative arrangement, Verhelst toys with mythology and religion, to the point where I would argue that he has invented a new creation myth, or perhaps more accurately, a re-creation myth. There are literal references to Greek mythology in the form of Prometheus and the Titans, which is interesting in and of itself because unlike the relatively ordered life of the Greek gods, the titans were primeval beings, existing in a maelstrom of chaos and violence. This essence is revisited countless times as the kingdom comes unhinged in ever greater and less justifiable acts of violence which rather explicitly echo places like Chechnya and the former Yugoslavia. On top of this mythological element, there are references to the Judeo-Christian tradition of varying levels of obliqueness. From rather explicit references to the lives of the saints to strong echoes to the story of Noah, there is an element of religiosity which infuses "Tonguecat".
The characters are a fascinating blend of the high and the low; from the young king to a peasant boy who has lost his family, each has a part to play in this odd tapestry, but only one has even a rough appreciation of what is actually happening, and even then his grasp is tenuous. As such, this is a novel that will have as many interpretations as readings. To a degree, this is something of a problem as the sometimes random motivations of the characters can bog down the reader's progress as one struggles to keep up with the rather jarring shifts in narrative flow. However, this problem is ultimately surpassed by Verhelst's adventurous style and commitment to his concept, which I found myself admiring even as I was sometimes frustrated by it.
While not an easy read, "Tonguecat" has the potential to become an "important" book in the evolution of 21st century fiction. A compelling fusion of Swanwick and Bradbury, it contains all of the former's deliberate, challenging weirdness while remaining steeped in the latter's disturbing familiarity. When combined with an original narrative form and an almost psychedelic use of language, Verhelst has produced a novel that is both fascinating and original. - Jake Mohlman
"These days, the pursuit of perfection is all around us, a pursuit that is based on the notion that we can alter the world to suit us. But, according to recent theories, this view is untenable and perfect order always ultimately degenerates into chaos. In Tongue Cat, Peter Verhelst uses the various stories to describe how a city falls apart and comes to grief in chaos and violence. In the masterly final chapter, Verhelst lets the story, together with the city, burst apart at the seams. Tonguecat is a visionary novel about our society." - Galway Independent
"Tonguecat enters into the fray with a story that entertains both types of lies we tell ourselves as societies and uses mythological/fantastical elements to write a witty, poignant tale of progress and decline both personal and national for all characters involved. Each chapter tells the same story but a different version of it through first person narrative from different characters. Verhelst manages to make each main character sympathetic, despite the horrors they inflict upon others. While trading in dreams, carrying fire and strawberries under their tongues, and seeing with cats' eyes, these characters convey the harshest, most beautiful social criticism I've read in quite a while.
The final passage in the novel begins, "I ask myself how long it will take before we are overrun by those knives. Until they have worked their way through us like bamboo shoots." The last words of the novel are a quote by Hakim Bay: "We welcome the return of Chaos, because with danger the possibility of creating comes closer." - Sarah Bowling Green
Zwerm - a literary virus by Peter Verhelst
"The new kind of Man is called Homo Invictus Viralis"
"Zwerm [Swarm] is the latest novel by Flemish writer Peter Verhelst (1962). Verhelst broke through in 1999 with his novel Tongkat [Translated in English as Tongue Cat], which won several awards in the Netherlands and Belgium. He has already been active as a novelist, poet and playwright several years before that time. Verhelst's prose shows many similarities with his poetry (and vice versa), as he uses an original spectrum of imagery and themes in both genres. Many elementes of verse can thus be found in his novels, both in terms of associative imagery and the presentation of whole pieces of poetry by others or himself.
This style is also found in Zwerm, only combined in this book with slightly different subject matter than in much of his earlier work. Books like Zwellend fruit [Swelling Fruit] (2000) and Memoires van een luipaard [Memoires of a Leopard] (2001), were sensual, and focused closely on the main characters. This is also true of Tongkat. Zwerm - with Geschiedenis van de Wereld [History of the World] as the subtitle - is a different case altogether. The distance between reader and characters has suddenly become greater, and you're left with the feeling of watching a movie whose plot makes little sense. But, that is probably the whole point of this ambitious subtitle. What is The History of the World, when you think about it? In the book, shards of (Western) 20th Centurt history are flying in all directions. It starts with an unsettling scene, which quickly begins to remind you of the 9/11 attacks. But if you think that it's all current issues, you're forced to think again. Through a list of intriguing characters, which we 'meet' only too briefly to really get to know them, we end up in the Vietnam war, WWII, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and so on. As a reader, you are quickly confronted with the fact that it is as difficult to truly get a clear image of history, as it is to follow the 'plot' of Zwerm.
An ominous thought, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. The book has roughly 673 pages - and not exactly 666, as claimed by some - counting back from 666 to 0, and on to -6. Besides being symbolic, this is also a lot of pages, and that of a story which offers little certainty to the reader. It seems a lot to take in, but there's enough going in the book to make the journey more interesting. As said, there are many references to history, but Verhelst also cites eagerly from poetry, modern art, literature and popular culture (Motorhead - The Ace of Spades!), and so forth. Zwerm is clearly a novel from the age of Internet and multimedia, and Verhelst isn't afraid to show it.
But under this seemingly endless chaos of references to (pseudo-) reality, one can clearly feel the writer's hand. To begin with, there is the typical imagery and associative way of writing. In this book, it's a tad more hidden, but still clearly present. But, in the end, between the tidal wave of information, a clearly theme, a sense of direction can be found. The "V" as letter, as symbol, as sound, is firmly present in this take on our World. "A single event can have infinitely many interpretations...", as Verhelst quotes text artist Jenny Holzer. The "V" represents the branching, the endless possibilities when it comes to passing on information. The "V" also stand for something more sinister. The Virus. In the literally black pages in the middle of the book, it is written:
de mens is dood
lang leve de mens
De nieuwe mens heet Homo Invictus Viralis
DE NIEUWE MENS ZAL VIRAAL ZIJN
OF ZAL NIET ZIJN
[mankind is dead
long live mankind
The new kind of Man is called Homo Invictus Viralis
THE NEW KIND OF MAN SHALL BE VIRAL
OR SHALL NOT BE]
This Virus can be a lot of things, but also is a lot of things with Verhelst. There are many interpretations. Is the virus capitalism, AIDS, or something else? In any case, the Virus is Change [Verandering], a concept which no one can ignore.
In this article, I've only been able to show a fraction of what can be made of this extraordinarily intriguing novel. It is therefore highly recommended to try and make something of it yourself, a reading method which Verhelst will definately not dismiss. The book is a worthy continuation of his work. It misses the intense world of feelings of Tongkat and his other novels, but it's interesting in a whole new way, and more relevant for current society." - Evening Light
"A kaleidoscope of our present-day world.
In Zwerm (Swarm) Peter Verhelst has generated a kaleidoscope of the violence, commotion, tense relationships, conflicts and outbursts of our present-day world. Some storylines refer to real events such as the My Lai massacre of the Vietnam War or the attack on the Twin Towers, both manifestations of mindless violence. However, Verhelst recreates reality in the form of a literary thriller that has been assembled in fragments, like a film. Some characters are grafted on to controversial figures who were briefly newsworthy.
Most are fictional: a young computer nerd who makes viruses and is traced through sophisticated techniques because of the secret he carries, his kidnapped girlfriend, a pianist, an Israeli scientist who has to abandon his family at a critical moment and assume a new identity. Their lives intermittently overlap in a world that seems overrun by electronic detection and espionage, computer crime, international political conspiracies and terrorism, war crimes, liquidations, and cover-ups. The action takes place mainly in Europe and the United States, Israel and Palestine.
One recurring motif is how impossible it is to compile a total picture from a glut of fragments and details, of making a clear and comprehensible survey of our current overstrung world. ‘As always, there are more invisible things than visible, and the invisible things are the fundamental ones,’ says one character. The author also uses secret codes and symbols.
For example, the page numbers run from 666 (the number of the Beast) to zero, the ‘black hole’ into which everything disappears. The typography is also assigned a separate function. The initial ‘V’ of ‘virus’, for example, also refers to the hope for a new future for the totally contaminated world of today.
Peter Verhelst has produced a tour de force. With its unusual structure and strong cinematic composition, Zwerm is overwhelming. Its concepts are strong and exciting, and its style powerful and enthusiastic. Its puzzling, fragmentary plot lacking any conclusion, a striking example of present-day modernist prose, without precedent. This is a book that will find its own public." - Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature