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from the August 2016 issue

“Her Entire Existence Was an Emergency”: Human Relationships in Flemish Literature

With Netherlands and Flanders joint guests of honor at the forthcoming Frankfurt Book Fair, all eyes will be turning to literature written in Dutch. But although it is united by a common language, Flemish and Dutch literature each has its own distinct flavor. The Flemish, a subset of Belgians, have fought for their identity and part of this has been upholding their colorful variant(s) of the Dutch language. Within the Low Countries, the Flemish are famed linguists with a much broader vocabulary and range of registers. Consequently, Flemish literature at its best is linguistically pyrotechnic, daring, and original; check out writers like Dimitri Verhulst and Tom Lanoye. Literature from the Netherlands, on the other hand, tends to be more sober, realist, and less imaginative: still-lives, as it were, with great attention to detail.

The Belgian twentieth-century avant-garde movement left traces on contemporary Flemish writing—in these pieces you’ll notice a dark, sometimes surrealistic sense of humor seeping through. The Flemish don’t shy away from graphic descriptions of blood and shit either. That said, the style isn’t the only notable feature: the Flemish are also skilled at kitchen-sink comedy and accurate psychological portraits; their characters always seem convincing. In Forty-four Years Later, graphic novelist Michaël Olbrecht’s second book, a family comes together to try to give the elderly Louis, who has suffered a stroke and can no longer talk, a good send-off before he moves into a nursing home. The chosen extract depicts a reenactment of a harvest festival from Louis’s youth, which almost inevitably descends into farce. Olbrecht’s colorful drawings depict the transition from the Belgian farming life of old to the new era of mobile phones and busy urban lifestyles. Like in most families, there are old sores, relationships are strained, and opinions about what qualifies as polite behavior are divided.

There is little polite behavior in Lize Spit’s novel The Melting. Spit burst onto the Belgian literary scene earlier this year with this hard-hitting, gory debut, which became an instant bestseller. She had previously won prizes for her short stories. In “Plasic Wrap” a divorced father tries to take care of his young daughter as best he can, but accidentally runs over her dog. The plastic wrap in the story is a nod to the absurd-seeming activities that sometimes take place within mundane domestic settings. Lize Spit’s fresh and incisive writing style is a welcome new addition to the Flemish stage.

The queen of psychological realism, Griet Op de Beeck has already won a large following with her complex family novels. Taken from her new short-story collection Your Turn, “What You’ve Given Up Hoping for Counts Twice as Much, She’d Discovered” is a dark, hilarious piece about a woman who finds herself in an extremely mortifying situation. Anxious to please her new boyfriend, she’ll stop at nothing to keep their relationship safe. The awkwardness of a dinner party with colleagues is the perfect setting for this modern fable. Situational comedy at its best.

And finally, the young playwright and novelist Michael Bijnens explores the Antwerp underworld in which he grew up. In his riotous debut novel Cinderella, prostitution becomes a family business when the son of a prostitute opens up his own whorehouse and becomes his mother’s pimp. Family relationships don’t get more complicated than this, you might think. “The fiercest, most insane prose I have read in years,” wrote fellow Flemish writer Peter Verhelst.

What these stories and extracts all have in common is their sense of urgency. Flanders turns out to be a place where a person’s “entire existence” can be an “emergency.” Yet underlying the comic panic, emotions run deep and human relationships are as complex and fraught as anywhere else in the world.

Enjoy this glimpse into the literary treasures Flanders has to offer!


© 2016 by Michele Hutchison. All rights reserved.

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