Hugo Claus — The Sorrow of Belgium (1983)

Setting: Belgium during the Second World War

What it’s about: A biting satire of Flemish nationalists collaborating with the Nazi collaboration. Life in Flemish villages passes by with only passing mentions of the horrors of war happening elsewhere. Its full of drunks, scoundrels, and degenerates who are empowered by collaboration with the Nazis.

The protagonist is a horny teenager: cynical, sardonic, pervy, unscrupulous. He joins the Hitler Youth but leaves when the other boys mock his penis in the shower.

His mother works for the Nazis in a aircraft supply office, starting an affair with a German officer. His father, forbidden by his grandfather to actively collaborate, vents racist and nationalist spleen while stockpiling food. He develops a habit of cooking his own sweets. “Papa, secret, selfish nibbler”, says the boy when he finds toffee wrappers on the floor of father’s workshop.

Claus’s book is about the people who do nothing to let evil triumph, who allowed ordinary life to continue under Nazi rule. The book is full of cowardly, drunken, immoral characters. There are no hero, and the “front” is something very far away, talked about it in bars, where young Louis drinks and listens to father and other pseuds mouthing nationalist principles of the day without ever acting them out:

“In Russia…men were freezing to death in their hedgehog positions. Small wonder then that the men in the Groeninghe crowded around the roaring potbellied stove kept lavishly fed with coal nuts by Noel.”

It starts slowly with a series of chapters set in a Catholic school just before the war starts (the part of the book called “of Belgium”), but picks up steam in the second part which is a stream of consciousness flow of ever more frenetic, bizarre depravity as the war grows to a close. For the collaborators, the early years of occupation remain relatively calm, it is only the arrival of the Allies that throws their lives into chaos and fear. The book could be criticised for being to kind to them, but it does a far better job of mocking them mercilessly, especially when the war ends and life goes on:

“Because all this time we have been living in a nightmare, did you know that, you old rascal? That’s what it says in the new newspapers…We are heading for a dream of equality, fraternity, and liberty. Yes, with the same people.”

You’ll like this if you liked: Ulysses, Lucky Jim, Milan Kundera,

The definitive Belgian novel?: In both style and subject — Hugo Claus is like a father figure of contemporary Flemish literature. Around the time of his death in 2008, his influence appeared everywhere when I was living in Brussels, and in the work of younger Flemish writers like Peter Verhulst or Thomas Gunzig, (who published a collection of short stories built around animals). Through them all, Magritte’s esoteric, playful irony seems to flow through Belgian literature and culture in general.

Magritte sense of humour is ever-present in Belgian literature

Viewed through surreal visions of the pervy little boy, Claus’s ridiculous, hypocritcal bourgeois characters jump straight out of Magritte painting. While Magritte paintings turn the mundane into the fantastical, Claus creates mundanity in a time of great upheaval. It is the preservation of their own mundanity that condemns the characters.

Rating: * (great writing, killer one-liners and witty dialogue, but too much bland anecdotes about school children and others messing about that could be cut out without harming the story)

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