Dimitri Verhulst - It is announced that Jesus Christ is to visit Belgium. The authorities squabble about how to receive Christ. They find an eleven-year-old girl in the asylum seekers' centre to act as Christ's Aramaic interpreter (Arabic, Aramaic, it's practically the same, right?). Neighbours resolve ancient feuds and communities gather together to confess and forgive en masse, no matter the depravity of the crime. As the date draws near, the whole city brightens up - there's never been a nicer time to have a Second Coming

Image of Christ’s Entry into Brussels

Dimitri Verhulst, Christ's Entry into Brussels. Trans. by David Colmer. Portobelo, 2014.

It is announced that Jesus Christ is to visit Belgium in a few weeks time, on its national day, the 21st of July. Coincidentally, our narrator's mother dies and his marriage ends. Feeling very low, and fluctuating between resentment, irony and cynicism, he reports on the events and on the behaviour of his compatriots. The authorities squabble about how to receive Christ. They find an eleven-year-old girl in the asylum seekers' centre to act as Christ's Aramaic interpreter (Arabic, Aramaic, it's practically the same, right?). Neighbours resolve ancient feuds and communities gather together to confess and forgive en masse, no matter the depravity of the crime. As the date draws near, the whole city brightens up - there's never been a nicer time to have a Second Coming.

This new novel by Dimitri Verhulst resembles a quirky pamphlet and a moral fable. The narrator considers himself part of the 'lost generation', which has no illusions about the state of the world - both in absurd Belgium and in the distressingly imperfect world beyond. He puts a finger on the symptomatic fever blisters of contemporary society, of the so-called 'malcontent mass'. With his bizarre imaginings, harsh criticisms and stylistic verve, he exposes an embarrassing reality, which often makes you laugh conspiratorially, and then cry.

Flemish author Dimitri Verhulst hangs his short, vitriolic novel on a premise that has already had a couple of recent outings: the promised return of Jesus. This time He's paying a visit to Brussels. Naturally, Brussels is the national focal point for Verhulst's native readers, but once the text is translated into English, the angle from which readers view it becomes more oblique, its blows more glancing. David Colmer, the highly regarded translator, has perhaps taken a deliberate decision not to smooth off the splintery knots of Verhulst's writing into something more English-sounding. This novel feels foreign and the writhing sentences suit this cynical, deeply disillusioned state-of-the-Belgian-nation rant. We may think we excel at national self-flagellation but Verhulst's sustained (and blackly funny) assault on the citizens of Brussels trumps all. It's amusing to watch him duffing up his country from the sidelines, yet just beneath his rage is a longing for a bit of peace, some thought for others and even Christian values. That feels quite foreign, too. -

Christ's Entry into Brussels is indeed about Jesus Christ's (expected) second coming -- to Brussels, of all places. Surfing on the Internet, the narrator and the rest of Belgium one day learn:
There it was, tucked away between an item about an attempt on the world hotdog-eating record and one listing the latest antics of a female pop singer. Christ was coming to Brussels on the twenty-first of July. Though anonymous, the sources were highly reliable and His coming was a definite fact. Further information would follow.  
       It takes a while to sink in -- holy sightings, as the narrator notes, especially of the Virgin Mary, have after all been frequent in Belgium over the years -- but this is something different, and it settles into the national consciousness far more firmly. A mass delusion, perhaps, but one everyone is drawn into and happily becomes part of. (Well, except the Catholic Church -- as convinced as anybody, but with a whole lot more to fear, since they have guilty consciences, concerned that Christ won't look too kindly on their overenthusiastic sexual abuse-rampaging in his name over the years.)
       Three weeks before He's due, the masses begin setting up camp on Brussels' Place de Palais, and Christ-fever really catches on. Even the narrator, a worn-out child of the 1960s whose marriage has dulled, finds himself caught up in the spirit of things -- like everyone else. Soon even the neighbor whom he's barely exchanged a word with is inviting him and his wife over for dinner and baring his soul (revealing rather disturbingly more than they probably want to know).
       The government authorities get in on the act too, and among their major concerns: finding someone who can translate for His Ultra-Holiness. A Latin speaker won't do, of course, they need someone who speaks Aramaic -- and so they fish out eleven-year-old Ohanna from the Transit 'Centre' where the unwanted would-be refugees are kept, figuring her language-skills are as close to that practically dead language as any they're likely to find. She and her family are moved to the presidential suite of a fancy hotel, and when the day comes to welcome Christ she's up on stage right beside the King himself.
       It's no coincidence that the day of Christ's arrival is the very day: "marking the celebration of our nationhood on the calendar", the Belgian National Day that's always a public holiday anyway (but this year promises to be something really special). Verhulst clearly chose it to hammer home the point: this is a story holding up a mirror to the unsightly Belgian nation.
       Verhulst's narrator strikes the right tone throughout. He's a cheerful and at times lightly dazed commentator who doesn't probe too hard and presents even the worst of Belgian society -- from the pederastic clergy and the awful colonial legacy to the more mundane indifferences of the contemporary everyday -- with a genial touch.
       The promise of Christ's coming upends attitudes throughout contemporary Belgium -- which shines an even stronger light on the dark underside of what the place usually is like. Verhulst casually describes the worst of Belgium -- and there's a lot of it -- and yet doesn't sound angry or bitter because it no longer matters: Christ is coming to town, and everything is okay now.
       Of course, there's a problem with that, one which neither the narrator nor the rest of mass-deluded Belgium are willing to consider .....
       Christ's Entry into Brussels is deceptively cheerful, with Verhulst pulling off the impressive feat of presenting a story that is about as deeply cynical as one can imagine yet barely relies on discomfiting black humor. His narrator is convincingly guileless -- but not a naïf. He buys into the Christ-is-coming story like everyone else because Belgium has become so debased that, basically, he has to: any possible way out of this deeply entrenched ugly reality is worth taking, and it takes something as absurd as the idea of Christ's return to rouse the populus -- a grasping at the straws of a decayed myth that once held promise but has gone the way of everything else in degenerate Belgium.
       One wonders whether Christ's Entry into Brussels reads differently in deeply secular Europe, where the idea of Christ's return can only be seen -- as would be the Greek-god-pantheon suddenly showing up -- as a fictional device than it does in, say, the American heartland, where a significant segment of society still actually seems to expect it (and infects even the unbelievers with their conviction, which lies in the air in a way it no longer can in a place like Belgium). Regardless, Christ's Entry into Brussels is a very good piece of work, and an excellent, spirited state-of-the-nation novel. - M.A.Orthofer

Jesus Christ announces his return to Earth, and his selected point of entry is Brussels. The citizens of the Belgian capital receive the news with equanimity. There is no reason to get excited, at least in the metropolis painted by Dimitri Verhulst, a hive of carefree misanthropy. The weather is indifferent, “the nondescript kind of weather Belgium excels in, the weather that helps it maintain its position as a global leader in the consumption of antidepressants”. But even in the absence of rain, “because the inhabitants of this kingdom value the anonymity provided so perfectly by an umbrella, it was up to them to imagine their umbrellas.” As Jonathan Meades observed, when you go to Belgium, Rene Magritte stops looking like a surrealist and starts looking like a devastating social realist, an observation Verhulst merrily echoes.
As the glad news sinks in, reaction is mostly positive:
The free-thinkers expressed their enthusiasm, in anticipation of the philosophical riches that an encounter with such a shining light would be sure to generate. … Defeatists and kiss-my-arsists everywhere indulged in childish excitement, the sceptics put the mockers under lock and key – it was a moving sight.
Conspicuous in its failure to join in the general good cheer is the Catholic Church. The Catholic authorities are, in fact, distinctly disquieted. Sure, Belgium has been a popular destination for the Holy Family in the past – Mary has put in a few appearances to the faithful over the centuries – but this was different.
The clergy could put two and two together. They were pissing themselves with terror and there was hardly a dry habit in the house. This time it wasn’t the Mother coming their way, but the utmost authority in the whole universe. To call them to account – no other reason imaginable!
Verhulst’s account of the days leading up to Christ’s arrival consists almost entirely of his narrator’s sardonic observations of the growing excitement. There is barely any other plot to speak of – a death in the family, some marriage difficulties. Generally, however, we are watching the city as it comes out of its shell. Cars are banned from central streets out of fear of bombs, which adds to a carnival atmosphere. Policemen smile, window boxes are put out. The narrator speaks to his next-door neighbour for the first time, a turn of events that he regards with horror – and that leads to a shocking revelation – but the encounter essentially passes without incident.
This lack of action doesn’t matter, as Christ’s Entry rips along, propelled by Verhulst’s splendid picture of Belgium, a pantomime horse of a country, puzzling to outsiders and infuriating to its proud nationals. “In Belgium it’s easier to find a parliamentarian than someone who can sharpen your tools for you,” the narrator complains, and the country’s many, many governors realise that Christ’s Coming is a big event – they should organise something to mark it. In his depiction of the leviathan national committee formed to oversee the festivities, Verhulst’s satire reaches a magnificent pitch. Belgium’s six governments, Brussels’ nineteen mayors, the Members of the European Parliament, the Royals, NATO, everyone wants in on the biggest photo opportunity in two millennia. If any of this sounds somewhat parochial, Verhulst’s Belgium could easily be the UK. British readers will find themselves remembering our preparations for the Olympic Games.
The national hunt for a native speaker of Aramaic ends at Transit Centre 127, where stateless unfortunates huddle behind barbed wire, waiting to be deported. A teenage refugee called Ohanna is selected – the organising sages like the symbolism.
Choosing a kid was usually a safe bet, just ask the ad men. Kids could be an enormous pain in the neck, but once you put that detail out of your mind, it was easy to accept a child as a symbol of absolute innocence. What’s more, Ohanna had a cute little face that could have been plucked straight from a UNICEF calendar – the month of May, for instance.
Ohanna and her family are plucked from Transit Centre 127 and installed in one of Brussels’ finest hotels. Her dreams, previously of interest to precisely no one, are reported in the newspapers.
With Ohanna’s introduction, Verhulst’s entertaining but cynical narration abruptly acquires a spine of real humanity – a timely reminder that for some people Christ’s reappearance might be more than an unusual summer spectacle; that whether the Saviour lives or not some people desperately need real, rather than spiritual, salvation. And it’s Ohanna who seasons what might otherwise be a harmless romp with the tang of tragedy. A short book, Christ’s Entry is unserious and serious in pin-sharp stereo – it is both charming and angry as hell. - Will Wiles   

James Ensor
Belgian, Ostend, 1888

Dimitri Verhulst, The Misfortunates: A Novel. Thomas Dunne Books; Reprint edition, 2013.

Frank, tender, and brutally funny, Dimitri Verhulst's semi-autobiographical story details the vibrantly entertaining journey of a boy growing up in a family of alcoholics in Belgium
Sobriety and moderation are alien concepts to the men in Dimmy’s family. Useless in all other respects, his three uncles have a rare talent for drinking, a flair for violence, and an unwavering commitment to the pub. And his father Pierre is no slouch either. Within hours of his son’s birth, Pierre plucks him from the maternity ward, props him on his bike, and takes him on an introductory tour of the village bars. His mother soon leaves them to it and as Dimmy grows up amid the stench of stale beer, he seems destined to follow the path of his forebears and make a low-life career in inebriation, until he begins to piece together his own plan for the future.
Bringing to life the shambolic upbringing that The Guardian describes as, “the odd, ugly, excremental poetry of their grubby lives,” The Misfortunates “can be unexpectedly tender as well as uncomfortably funny . . . this novel continually surprises and intrigues.”
Winner of The Vondel Prize for translation!*

“Dimitri tells the story episodically, and as the episodes accumulate, comic scenes reveal larger causes and repercussions…The Verhulsts are by turns crass, canny, clannish and hapless — headed, in good spirits, for disaster.” —The New York Times“These often earthy stories…offer a warts-and-all portrait of a family.”—Booklist"This bitingly honest book tips toward the amusing as fiction and toward the dismaying as autobiography."—Publishers Weekly“A family of deeply entrenched alcoholics stumbles its way toward grace in this 2007 novel of misadventure from award-winning Belgian writer Verhulst (Goddamn Days on a Goddamn Globe, 2008, etc.). The grotesque nature of chronic drinking is played as absurdist comedy in Verhulst's book. Admittedly autobiographical, Verhulst’s rendering of pub life and the liver-crushing, free-wheeling lifestyle that has long-term effects on the narrator recalls nothing so much as the bittersweet flavor of Charles Bukowski and, by extension, Tom Waits. There’s something of a meditation on fatherhood; the patriarch of the family takes his son on a tour of the bars immediately after his birth. But unfortunately, the novel’s women become mere afterthoughts to the sport of the day. Drinking, as the narrator Dimmy explains, becomes something of a contest. “God created the day and we dragged ourselves through it,” Verhulst writes. “When we still lived like characters in the songs of Big Bill Broonzy, Omer organized an assault on the world drinking record.” And the men, be it Dimmy’s father or his extended family of uncles, are rather disgusting: sweating, farting, scratching, cursing behemoths for whom beer and the consumption of said is a religion. The novel’s pinnacle comes in the form of “The Tour de France,” a monumental tribute to the pub crawl, replete with the contestants speeding through the suburbs in their underwear. Verhulst wraps things up nicely as Dimitri outgrows his roots. “I’m not one of them, but I’d like to be,” he says. “I wish I could show my loyalty or my love, whatever you want to call those feelings. A poetic, no-holds-barred slice of the European lowlife, with lots of drinking.” —Kirkus Reviews“Verhulst's gift for imagery is impressive . . . the humour is pitch-black and very funny.” —Prospect
“Ceaselessly entertaining . . . it bursts with humour and energy that never lets up.” —BookMunch
“Outrageousness yields to eloquent recognition in this darkly intelligent novel.” —Irish Times
“Verhulst is a writer with an understanding of those who fail, and writes acutely and authentically.”
De Standaard

“Verhulst is probably one of the most sensitive, most poetic of the new young Flemish writers. But none of his contemporaries has the same hardness. Sometimes his pen comes down like a hammer.”
De Morgen

Do they get Shameless in Belgium? It may be unfair to compare every fictionalised account of alcoholism with that exuberant television series, but the parallels between the world of the Gallaghers and the denizens of The Misfortunates – the Verhulsts of Arsendegem – seem closer than most.
The Verhulsts have the same inverted pride in their own depravity, the same up-yours disregard for respectable society. They seem literally without shame. When a sweet young visiting niece is introduced to the locals of The Nook, for instance, one of them gives her a tour of his colostomy bag – "Let me show you how I shit these days" – serenading her with the thing as though it was a violin. Dimitri, the child of the family, tells us that his father always "shat with the door wide open".
In this semi-autobiographical novel, the author describes a childhood spent in a family of uncles – his father Pierre's siblings – all of whom have fled their wives to return to the more accommodating maternal nest. As they see it, they have been set free to follow their true vocation of unfettered self-destruction through drink. They regard an early death (through cancer rather than cirrhosis – but then they smoke as much as they drink) as a fair price to pay. Apart from Dimitri's grandmother, women are regarded as little more than obstacles to this project. Dimitri's mother is dismissed as a "bourgeois cow". The older Dimitri is able to say: "There are two people I hate. One gave birth to me and the other was giving birth to my child." Women are feared because they awaken a form of self-consciousness and thence a sense of shame.
Postman Pierre is the only one with a job, though that does little to inhibit his drinking. When Dimitri is born he takes him straight from the maternity ward to tour the local bars, his bike (with baby propped in the postbag) wobbling ever more as the tour progresses. Drinking is regarded as a specialised skill, almost as a trade. It even finds a political justification, preventing the family from falling victim to consumerism. When Pierre finds he has some extra money at the end of the month he drinks his entire pay packet to save his family from the "temptations of capitalism".
Perhaps the most inventive of the drinkers is young Girder, who devises a drunkard's version of the Tour de France. With a standard glass of alcohol representing five kilometres, the racers gather in their Lycra to cover the distances, moving through the dimension of inebriation rather than space. The physical effects of such consumption (sweaty face, trembling limbs) are so similar to those of cycling that the grandmother thinks they are actually racing on bicycles.
Their drinking is both their punishment and their salvation – it exempts them from responsibility at the same time as loading them with new burdens. Pierre may argue that possessions own you and that drinking frees the spirit, but at the same time it erodes both the mind and the body. He is the only one to take any steps to save himself, surprising everyone by booking into a drying-out clinic. Once the brothers realise he is serious, they take him on one last binge and arrive so drunk they don't notice a patient hurling himself to his death as they arrive at the entrance.
The Misfortunates reads at first like a collection of linked short stories, self-contained chapters offering a sporadic, gappy narrative of Dimitri's development away from his father's drinking culture. This can be frustrating – storylines break off and are never followed up; large tracts of time are unaccounted for. One could say this reflects the messy lives that are being followed, but it is also a testament to how engaging these characters are that we should feel this frustration. The odd, ugly, excremental poetry of their grubby lives can be unexpectedly tender as well as uncomfortably funny; whether they are gatecrashing an eager-to-please immigrant family so that they can watch Roy Orbison's comeback show (their own TV having been taken by the bailiffs) or failing to remember the drinking songs a local folklorist wants to record, this novel continually surprises and intrigues.
The other end of the drinking process is urination. In this novel it works as a leitmotif, recurring in different forms in different scenes. The uncles wear pee-stained pants. One chapter recounts an early memory where girls peeing in a pond attracted fish who "gulped the nutrients a jet of urine apparently contained". Dimitri's birth caused his mother to suffer urinary problems, and she was the proud owner of a pee card, which gave her priority at any public convenience. It takes an exceptional writer to wring beauty from such material, but Verhulst manages it, and in the closing scenes he produces something of exquisite tenderness in the lavatory of a motorway service station. And not many novels do that. - Gerard Woodward
Reminiscent of the TV series Shameless in its portrayal of an anarchic working-class family, Dimitri Verhulst's semi-auto-biographical novel is set in a nondescript Flemish town, "an ugly backwater, but a great place for drizzle and pigeon fancying". It centres on the dysfunctional childhood of 13-year old Dimmy, who lives in his grandmother's house with his workshy, alcoholic father and equally inebriated uncles. Their squalid existence is worn like a badge of honour: "We were poor, always had been, but we bore our poverty with pride. A flash car in front of the house was a humiliation".
Everything in the Verhulst household revolves around alcohol consumption. When Dimmy's "respectable" cousin Sylvie comes to stay, the family delight in instructing her in the art of drinking. A social worker meets the family when they are suffering from a group hangover. The bailiffs attempt to repossess a television in lieu of defaulted payments squandered on beer.
The story unfolds through anecdotes where machismo, misogyny, and general debauchery are the dominant themes. The Verhulsts pride themselves on their proclivity for drinking, their sexual and fighting prowess, but what differentiates Dimmy is his powers of observation and ability to describe their lives with a wry, laconic humour.
Despite his family's aversion to anything resembling hard work, Dimmy makes a life as a writer. In the closing chapters, Verhulst fast-forwards to Dimmy's early experiences as an adult. His callousness towards the birth of his first child vividly contrasts with the devotion he shows to his grandmother in her care home. His affection for his late father remains, but his love for his uncles has been replaced with a mild distrust.
Turning degenerate lives into literature is nothing new, but Verhulst's distinctive voice, childlike and knowing at the same time, is particularly resonant. His savage humour is refreshing in its honesty. Seamlessly translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, this is a welcome addition to the ranks of literary fiction that find humour, and sometimes poetry, in urban deprivation. - Lucy Popescu 

I read quite a few European books in translation but its not often I come across a book from Belgium (only two feature on this blog so far).  Late last year I made a visit to Bruges and realised that that beautiful city of canals and filigreed stonework was hardly characteristic of a country that contained the huge working port of Antwerp and the Euro-capital of Brussels.  In The Misfortunates, Dimitri Verhulst has given us an image of a working-class suburb (the fictional “Arsendegem”) of an un-named town where drunkenness and low-level violence predominate.
According to his Wikipedia entry, Dimitri Verhulst was came from a broken home “and spent his childhood in foster homes and institutes”.  The publicity for the book says that it is semi-autobiographical – a book where the author has taken his life as a starting point and then embellished the bare bones of his life to make it more entertaining and readable.  The reader never knows where reality ends and fiction begins but as the boy in The Misfortunates is called “Dimmy” there is obviously enough reality in the book that the author can say, “This was my life”.

The Misfortunates is a collection of vividly described episodes from the childhood and youth of a boy living in a family which is so dysfunctional that its difficult to see how a child could survive it.  This is a world of drinking, violence and poverty so severe that it is not surprising that Dimmy ends up being taken into care.  The book reminded me a little of Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in that it doesn’t try to tell the whole life story of the boy but describes various episodes in his life.
Dimitri Verhulst was born in 1972 and apparently Belgium still had homes like this in the 1970s:
I spent my first years with my parents in Kanton Street on a tiny courtyard with a communal water pump and a communistic toilet – a hole in a plank, directly above the septic tank.  Water ran down the inside of the living room walls and we stuffed balls of newspaper into the worm-eaten window-frames to keep out the wind.  When we moved to Mere Street, it was only to be worse off.  Our new toilet was a hole in a plank as well, but this house had the advantage of a leaking roof. Our kitchen floor was covered with buckets that caught the drops from the ceiling . . . we refilled the little bowls of rat-poison daily.
When an aunt visits from Brussels, Dimmy goes on to describe how,
we were ashamed of the pounds of raw mince we ate because it was cheap and easy, and we were ashamed of the way we stuck our fingers into the mince to grab a handful to stuff into our mouths before washing it down with cold coffee that had been left standing in a mug from yesterday.  We were ashamed of the worms we got from the mince and didn’t do anything about.
With a background like that its not surprising that the episodes which Dimmy goes onto describe are going to be pretty distasteful.  The family’s life revolves around the pubs of the locality including The Liars’ Haven, which hosts a drinking competition based on the Tour de France, in which each stage consisted of drinking monumental amounts of beer.
On another occasion a bailiff comes to the house to claim recompense for the family’s debts only to find that the furniture is so broken and battered that its not worth taking.  Eventually taking the television with him, the family are left having to find somewhere to watch that night’s Roy Orbison concert.  They con their way into the home of a local immigrant couple, bringing a case of beer with them and show the couple “the true face of Belgium” by hurling cushions at the ceiling and dancing on the table.
One riotous episode follows another.  Social workers pass through, sessions in drying-out clinics are wasted away with extravagant, beer-soaked, home-coming celebrations.  Eventually Dimmy grows up and away from his dreadful family – a man apart, driven by an internal search for something better.
I haven’t been one of them for a long time and the proof is that they’ve started talking to me in something that’s supposed to pass for standard Dutch, the same wat they speak to my son. Even though I know how stuck-up they find it. I no longer speak my own dialect.
I tend to think of Belgium as a fairly cultured European nation and was surprised at the level of debauchery apparently found in Dimitri Verhulst’s Aresendegem.  However, the book is humorous throughout and despite the crudeness of the events described, the author frequently launches off into lyrical prose which adds a layer of unexpected beauty onto this terrible world. - Ninni Holmqvist

A boy who lived with four drunks, who fell asleep at his school desk because he hadn’t come home from the pub with his father until early in the morning, who cleaned up his father’s vomit and helped him get undressed.” That boy is Dimitri Verhulst, main character of this autobiographical novel by Flemish writer Dimitri Verhulst. There are few working-class novels but The Misfortunates is an even rarer thing: a novel set in the underclass.
The book has been a sensation in Flanders and the Netherlands. The Misfortunates, first published in 2006, is now in its 47th Dutch edition.
The novel’s narrator enters adolescence living “with my father and my uncles and their old mother in Arsendegem, a town the great cart­ographers forgot, an ugly backwater, but a great place for drizzle and pigeon fancying”.
When not in the café, the Verhulst family spends its time smoking, watching bad TV, dodging bailiffs, impregnating unfortunate women, attempting to set official world records for beer drinking and riding in a naked bike race (the latter event a highlight of the 2009 film of the novel). The family’s favourite artist is Roy Orbison, who sings for “misfortunates” around the world.
Most of the book consists of Verhulst recalling the family’s adventures from his tranquil middle age. There isn’t much plot but then these characters are not living linear lives that are meant to take them anywhere. “It was autumn,” the narrator starts one new section, in a parody of a romantic cadence, “but we were on a bender the whole year round and stories about lives like ours generally ignore the seasons.”
Verhulst’s prose is always a delight, deserving its elegant translation by David Colmer, but for perhaps the first half of this short novel you laugh along uneasily. Humour about “chavs” (in Britain) or “white trash” (in the US) is a well-worn genre. At first Verhulst seems simply to be translating the jokes of reality TV series into well-worked prose. No wonder, you think, that The Misfortunates upset the Verhulst family.
The author himself is aware he risks turning his characters into exhibits in a human zoo. Late in the book, when some researchers into folklore unearth the Verhulsts and try to get them to sing their Flemish drinking songs, the main character is outraged: “It was an illusion to think that anyone was genuinely interested in ordinary people.”
The Misfortunates does have its own share of chav-mockery but it ends up transcending that. To the narrator, the Verhulsts are admirable in their own way – certainly preferable to respectable folk. The family is a community (albeit one without wives), centred on its favourite cafés, where the no-good men of the town spend their lives before dying prematurely of lifestyle diseases.
The Verhulsts gradually emerge as bohemians, too wise to buy into the myth of progress that sustains working stiffs. “The misfortunate have a more realistic view of the world,” the narrator claims. In middle age, visiting his grandmother in her old-age home, he notes “the whingeing children other visitors had brought with them as compensation or to emphasise that the oldies’ lives had been passed on, like batons in the perpetual, apparently pointless relay race everyone clung to in the great regrettability of things”. The Verhulsts may make children but they aren’t foolish enough to waste time raising them.
And so the author mostly avoids the main traps in writing about the underclass: he neither mocks his characters, nor feels sorry for them, nor mawkishly holds them up as models for the rest of us. In the end, the narrator is grateful that in adolescence a social worker whisked him from his loving but drunken home, into a succession of children’s homes and foster families.
This is a subtle and wonderfully told story. Two of Verhulst’s previous novels, Problemski Hotel and Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill , have already appeared in English. More ought to follow.

book cover

Dimitri Verhulst, Problemski Hotel. Trans. by David Colmer, Marion Boyars, 2003.

Problemski Hotel is an extremely fascinating book in which the daily life of asylum-seekers is related in an inimitable way . . . A profound portrayal of a group of people with no future.”—De Standaard der Letteren

A comic novel on a very serious subject. Dimitri Verhulst, an investigative journalist, had himself locked up in the asylum-seekers center at Arendonk for several days for a Flemish magazine. He then wrote a magazine article, but the experience would not let go of him. He wrote this comic, unabashedly politically incorrect novel, which is told from the perspective of asylum-seeker Bipul Masli, a press photographer from Somalia. The action takes place in an asylum-seekers center in Belgium in the final weeks of 2001.

Just like it says on the cover this is a story that pulls no punches, but there’s one little question that keeps niggling in the back of my mind: does it throw the right punches in the first place? Dimitri Verhulst’s Problemski Hotel (Marion Boyars) follows asylum seeker/photographer Bipul Masli as he spends time ‘holed up’ in a Belgium Asylum Centre, where he dreams of the perfect picture he nearly took and the perfect escape before he becomes just another used and abused statistic seeking a better life. This work is terribly current – the narrative voice Verhulst uses is enterprising and slick. We are reading something he knows few of us have seen and he can basically say what he wants – which he invariably does. You see, Dimitri Verhulst once spent time in a Belgium Asylum Centre at Arendonk for a Flemish magazine called Deus Ex Machina. Verhulst paints a grim, disparate picture [which is most probably realistic in its oppressive feel] of the everyday trivialities that occupy the minds and lives that reside within its confined walls – this is mostly a picture of nefarious violence, racism and vile misogyny.
Rather sporadically, at least, this is a sickeningly well written book, Verhulst’s turn of phrase is a page turner in itself [the whole book can be read in one sitting if you have a day to yourself] serving some purpose - if only to peek at how disgusting low and shocking he is willing to go. His startling use of incorrect humour for such a subject defuses the discord and harassment witnessed and felt by each character. Each human is basically thought of as a piece of meat – all smelling alike, all looking alike, all desperate to escape, to begin living again. The whole book is extremely crude, but then again, I guess it has to be – how can it not be? These are people who are treated appallingly. Problemski Hotel is a ragged mix of working men and women who have been rounded up like cattle and subjected to, on a daily basis, mindnumbingly tedious and nonsensical bureaucracy designed to make their lives living hell – there is no respect for human nature in here full stop. So, maybe, Verhulst is justified in his vulgarity.
What we do see is a definite culture of “us and them” [similar themes are echoed in the recent London short story collection Diaspora City]. Bipul, the photographer, takes a step back observing his subject. He is arrogant and uncaring, lending the narrative a harsh lens that scrutinises each character without mercy. The narrative voice concerning Muslims at Ramadan is harsh and unforgiving to say the least – but is born from base frustration rather than myopic racism. Although, most of the characters in Problemski Hotel are myopic and racist. For instance, this frustrating voice, Bipul himself, can be oddly forgiving:
“All the Muslims, and they’re definitely the majority around here, have gone to the computer class and checked out the Ramadan calendar for the year 1422 on www.mbs.maghreb.com. That is the year in which we are now living: the year in which they torpedoed the States with two high-flying shahids, whereas at the same point on their timeline, the old Continentals hadn’t even wiped out their first Indian tribe…” [Pg 74]
Or is that still unforgiving? And on the English and England:
“What do you want to go there for? The food’s hardly better than the fodder you get in the asylum centre. They lure in losers, you’re welcome there without papers, all you have to do is sneak into a container and make sure you don’t suffocate or freeze to death. It’s like a children’s game …” [pg 42]
Perpetuating the same crass generalisations? Possibly? All this leads to my next question: is this, then, a racist book? Race plays such a pivotal role and races of all creed and colour seem to hate each other throughout. But no, this is not a racist book, although Verhulst does play a part in the categorisation of race, possibly demonising others and humanising the rest. Everyone and everything is objectified through the eyes of one character, who only sees people as an image to be framed. Everything has its place and pigeon-hole in Bipul’s world view.
On the whole we do see, regardless of this singular view, a dehumanisation of each refugee – each is stripped bare of all individuality in the eyes of the law. All are uniform in this design. And all act accordingly. It is happening to countless asylum seekers as I write and there is nothing we can do about it. The crux of this book is that human beings treat other human beings badly; they always have done and, sadly, always will do.
So onto those wrong punches. The problem for me was Verhulst’s desire to shock. Far the most harrowing chapter of the book occurs towards the end. It explains, in explicit terms, the murder and disposal of a new-born child – the product of a rape. Bipul feels that even this is too much for him. The scene is gripping in the fact that it is well written but let down in its aim; to shock the reader. I suppose there is a point behind such a chapter: what chance does a new born child stand in the centre when no one else does? We are taken through the debacle of who will undertake the grim task of killing the child once she/he is delivered – the strongest of characters cannot bring themselves to do it. When it does happen, it happens quickly and without fuss, Verhulst enjoying the build-up rather than the finale.
The ending is a tad predictable, but fitting all the same. There is an ostensible predictability glued to each character. Each man, woman and child wants the same thing, they all want to escape, they all want a new beginning, to live their life. What else is left for them to do? This dark predictability is also mirrored in the joke about a black man’s genitalia that is juxtaposed at various intervals within the text. We see here a myopic ignorance, symbolised by this racist pub-joke scenario. Highlighting the sad fact that nothing changes on the outside, there is blind lack of knowledge everywhere, humans are objectified the world over. It seems that Verhulst has given up the ghost in fighting this ignorance and chosen another path, accepting the inherent racism in all cultures, choosing the record the distrust, violence and hatred this produces. It is a shame, more could have been said.
Dimitri Verhulst’s Problemski Hotel is worth reading because it is current and unashamed to retell a story. The prose is terse and witty, yet it is somehow let down by its propensity to shock or disgust at the turn of each page. It is shoe-horn braggadocio, image placed for effect. And just as Bipul yearns for a perfect picture, I felt myself yearning for more substance. Shock and awe prose. It seems that Verhulst has tried, in this respect, a little too hard. - Lee Rourke

Dimitri Verhulst, Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill. Trans. by David Colmer, Portobello Books, 2009.

A tender, precise, and perfect-pitch novel about a widow of legendary beauty and a love that endures beyond death from the new Dutch literary star. Years ago, Madame Verona and her husband built a home for themselves on a hill in a forest above a small village. There they lived in isolation, practicing their music, and chopping wood to see them through the cold winters. When Mr. Verona died, the locals might have expected that the legendary beauty would return to the village, but Madame Verona had enough wood to keep her warm during the years it would take to make a cello—the instrument her husband loved—and in the meantime she had her dogs for company. And then one cold February morning, when the last log has burned, Madame Verona sets off down the village path, with her cello and her memories, knowing that she will have no strength to climb the hill again. Poignant, precise, and perfectly structured, this is a story of one woman's tender and enduring love—as a wife, and as a widow.

I’ve read good reviews of this book and really wanted to like it, but I just couldn’t. Although it’s very short (only 145 pages) it took me almost a week to finish it because I found it difficult to get interested in the story.
The book is set in the tiny and remote village of Oucwegne, a place that is slowly dying due to the lack of girls being born in recent generations. Madame Verona and her musician husband Monsieur Potter live in an isolated house at the top of a steep hill overlooking the village. As they get older, it becomes more and more difficult to walk up and down the hill. When Monsieur Potter hangs himself from a tree after being diagnosed with cancer, he leaves his wife enough firewood to last another twenty years. During those twenty years, Madame Verona lives alone with only an assortment of stray dogs for company, waiting for a luthier (cello-maker) to build her a cello using the wood of the tree from which her husband hanged himself. Eventually she places the last log on the fire and, as the title suggests, comes down the hill, knowing she won’t have the strength to go back up ever again.
The problem I had with the book is that there’s very little action, there’s no suspense as we know what’s going to happen right from the beginning, and there’s almost no dialogue. However, this is more to do with my own personal reading preferences rather than a criticism of the book itself – it’s not supposed to be a thriller after all. Most of the 145 pages are devoted to a string of humorous anecdotes describing life in an isolated village where only six people attend church, the men are obsessed with playing games of table football and a cow was once elected mayor. Most of the characters Verhulst describes are portrayed as eccentric and not particularly likeable. It’s easy to see why Madame Verona was in no hurry to rejoin the community, preferring to stay on the hill with her memories of her husband. The final few chapters, though, were poignant and moving and will be understood by anyone who has lost someone they love.
This book has been translated from the original Dutch, but even in translation Dimitri Verhulst’s writing is poetic and thought-provoking. If you can appreciate the beautiful writing for its own sake and are happy to read a book where nothing really happens, then you would probably enjoy Madame Verona. I would be prepared to try more of Verhulst’s books because he does have a very nice style, but this one just didn’t appeal to me. - http://shereadsnovels.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/review-madame-verona-comes-down-the-hill-by-dimitri-verhulst/

Ageing, bereavement and death are sombre themes, yet this novel's treatment of them is agreeably entertaining. It is set in rural Flanders, where the widowed Madame Verona has become old and infirm. As the story opens one cold February day, she realises she can no longer walk unaided back up the hill from the village to her home. So she takes the clear-eyed decision that this is where her life should end. Accompanied by her latest dog – strays are always seeking her out – she ventures down the hill to sit out her final hours on a municipal bench as snow falls and freezing night descends.

Madame Verona has outlived her idiosyncratic husband, Monsieur Potter, a composer prone to melancholy. Upon his first sight of their elevated abode, he said he liked it because he thought it a good home to be unhappy in. When the vet told him he was terminally ill (the nearest doctor is much too far away), he hung himself from a tree. Madame Verona had a cello made from the tree's wood, an innovative memorial marred only by appalling acoustics.
Dimitri Verhulst is an engagingly roundabout writer, and the village's eccentric inhabitants populate many digressions. When the vet takes the blood pressure of human patients she absent-mindedly grabs them in headlocks, in case of bites. Robert the local miser rations his execrable cigars by writing precise lighting-up times on their bands. In the damp canteen of the old cinema, the villagers play table football in between prodigious drinking and smoking.
Madame Verona rises serenely over the brutal bathos of rural life as the radiance from her relationship with her husband continues to sustain her. Before dying, Monsieur Potter chopped what he hoped would be enough firewood to last his wife the rest of her days and, fortuitously, the final log is burning when she leaves. Translated by David Colmer, this tale of enduring love is often preposterous, sometimes poignant and, above all, consistently charming. - Peter Carty


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