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.
The Misfortunates has been turned into a film, available with English subtitles.