By: Bob Van Laerhoven
Picture this, a lonely and vaguely melancholic, 17 year old boy in 1970, living in a small Flemish/Belgian village, surrounded by pine woods, at the border with The Netherlands.
Later in his life, that boy will learn the hard way that border places are often rough and dangerous places, woods or no woods.
But now, he’s searching for something that will appease a shapeless longing in him. His parents, poor and hard working people, wish that he’ll become a postman. Regular job, steady income, smooth life.
Healthy too: each day biking many miles in the flatlands of De Kempen, that Flemish region of small farmers and workers in Antwerp’s harbor, distributing letters, written in the gnarly handwriting of simple people.
Life is tough. Don’t go out late. Don’t catch a cold. Don’t drink. Work hard. Build a house. Be normal.
That’s what simple people say to each other. That’s what his parents said to him.
The boy is a dreamer and likes to read. No good spills forth from this laziness. He needs some character. He’s skinny; let him do some real men’s work.
So, the boy did some real men’s work in the harbor. He steeled his muscles in the holds of ships filled with Rhine sand. But his dreamy and sad nature didn’t evaporate in the sand. He did his reading after dark in bed with a flashlight.
The village sported a small but well kept library, and there the boy found, by chance, by accident, by Fate, Den Bloemen van den Booze, a translation in archaic Dutch of Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire, whom the French like to call un poète maudit.
How his heart thrilled when he read The Flowers of Evil of this cursed poet! Here was a twin soul speaking to him in delicate words and sublime rhythm. Baudelaire evoked the unbearable weight of living in a neurasthenic, hypersensitive language, rich and contrasting, vile, exquisitely beautiful. The boy vowed to read the original, knowing that French was a more melodic language than his guttural Flemish, a Dutch dialect. The librarian, a retired schoolmaster with the reddest hair you ever saw, noticed the esthetic hunger burning in the clunky youth and promised him a copy of Les Fleurs du Mal. He held his promise and the boy spend many nights with the bundle and a French-Dutch dictionary. The lines he read, scoured against his heart like the cracking of innumerable insect wings.
Sans cesse à mes cotés s’agite le Demon
Il nage autour de moi comme un air impalpable
Je l’avale et le sens qui brûle mon poumon
Et l’emplit d’un désir éternel et coupable.
A demon, lurking agitatedly in the depth of his being, surrounding him with an invisible cloak, and evoking an eternal and guilty desire that burns in his lungs.
Yes, that was what the boy felt. He was guilty of dreaming an impossible dream: becoming an author.
His parents said it couldn’t be done. They said: “Your dream is not for our kind of people.”
So, two years later, the boy left home with nothing but his hopes, starting a life that rambled from pillar to post, 12 crafts, 13 mishaps , eventually learning to publish novels by writing and discarding them, writing and discarding them, writing and discarding them.
No longer a boy, he became known as a novelist in the Netherlands and Belgium. But his unrest remained, whispering in the night, like Socrates’ Daimon. What, exactly, is a Man?
To search for the answer, for thirteen years he became a travelling writer in war-torn countries in a vain attempt to quench the fiery challenge in the demon’s question, learning the hard way that, as Baudelaire’s verses had predicted, it was grief that was swirling around him like an impalpable mist. Grief for this wretched world, grief for the endless suffering mankind inflicts on itself.
In Somalia, Bosnia, Gaza, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Kosovo, Liberia, Mozambique, Burma, Burundi, and many other countries, he tried to analyze the eternal and guilty desire of the human race. In the end, he became confused and afraid, losing himself in nightmares about the Human Condition.
He withdrew from the world, and only spoke to his horses, the creatures he had learned to love and cherish. In their ancient ways, they taught him that he had to witness all this suffering and violence in order to be able to go back to his roots, and to fulfill a promise the 17-year old boy with his flashlight underneath the blankets of his bed had vowed: I will write about Charles Baudelaire, and it will be a somber and wretched and harsh parable of intricate passion and deceit; I will disclose the seeds of the Flowers of Evil that grow in everyone of us.
Now picture this 63-year old author of 36 books, living in a tiny country – Belgium – at the other side of the Ocean, and with a past that seems as surrealistic as Magritte’s paintings. At 57, he wrote, at last, the novel Baudelaire’s Revenge, which, among other countries, was published in the US in 2014, a year later followed by the short story collection Dangerous Obsessions. Currently, he’s working on The Shadow Of The Mole, his third novel in English.
Oh, he’s busy all right, but sometimes, when mornings are misty over his prairies and the forest around his house, when he hears the whinnying of his beloved horses, he muses about that 17-year old boy, and remembers how he was standing at the edge of the vast pine woods that surrounded his village, shouting words at the trees, which, unresponsively, absorbed every syllable and every verse, and wonders: was that truly me?
To know the answer, the writer has to listen to faint murmuring, deep in the night, like the cracking of innumerable insect wings.
Bob Van Laerhoven – Flemish author
Baudelaire’s Revenge was published in the US in hardback, paperback, and e-book version, by Pegasus Books. The novel also appeared in France and Canada. Italian and Russian translations are on their way.
The novel won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best suspense novel of the year in the LowLands, and the USA Best Book Award 2014 in the category mystery/suspense.
Dangerous Obsessions was published in the US, in hardback, paperback, and e-book version, by The Anaphora Literary Press. The story Hearts Don’t Beat On Letters in the collection was first published by the literary magazine Conclave, journal of character. Checkmate In Chimbote was first published by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Dangerous Obsessions was voted “best short story collection of 2015” by the San Diego Book Review.