Flemish fiction: the best of 2014
Make the most of those cosy winter nights with a bit of homegrown literature
The year’s best books
Oorlog en terpentijn (War and Turpentine)
Stefan Hertmans • De Bezige Bij
Though this novel was published in the autumn of 2013, Oorlog en terpentijn (War and Turpentine) won so many prizes this year, we’ve decided to include it here. And besides, it hasn’t been surpassed this year. It is, without a doubt, one of the best novels published in Flanders over the last several years, winning multiple awards, including the prestigious AKO Literature Prize last month.
Author Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather, Urbain Martien, was a corporal who fought in the First World War. He later wrote an account of this harrowing experience and handed it to his grandson just before his death in 1981. It took Hertmans 30 years to muster up the courage to read it.
Eventually, though, he did much more: He turned the account into a novel to honour his grandfather, a man who once gave him a watch when he was a boy, a meaningful heirloom that was shattered in the hands of a clumsy young Stefan. It was an event that stayed with him and filled him with guilt and the determination not to let his grandfather down a second time.
Based solely on his grandfather’s notes, Hertmans’ beautifully written novel overflows with striking imagery and raw emotions.
During the Belle Époque, the well-educated Céline marries a poor and ailing painter. Their son, Urbain, inherits his father’s love for painting and restoration, a passion that has to be put on hold when the war starts.
In the first part of Oorlog en terpentijn, Hertmans reconstructs his grandfather’s childhood – his relationship with his parents and his education. In the second part, the point of view shifts, and Urbain becomes the narrator instead of Hertmans himself, based on the account he left behind of his own experiences during the slaughter of 1914-18.
Urbain eventually becomes a war hero but is crippled by the conflict none the less. The book goes on to recount the love of his life and his eventual marriage, from which Hertmans’ mother is born. This is where the notes that Urbain left his grandson end.
The remainder of Oorlog en terpentijn is based on many long conversations with relatives, concluding an intricate and inward-looking saga. Hertmans tells this harrowing piece of family history with poise and compassion, showing us with intimate detail how lives can be shattered by a single brushstroke.
Bronze Owl winner
Kris Van Steenberge • Vrijdag
Former teacher Kris Van Steenberge’s first book, which won the Bronze Owl for a debut novel in October, is a real Flemish gem, a classic story set in a rural village where the locals experience love, tragedy and, ultimately, war.
At the end of the 19th century in a village called Woesten, young Elisabeth is ready to spread her wings until she discovers that she is pregnant and is forced to marry the father. She gives birth to twins: the beautiful Valentijn and his horribly disfigured brother, who remains nameless. As 1914 approaches, war isn’t the only tragedy to strike this quiet town. Woesten is epic, elegant and sumptuous storytelling.
Peter Terrin • De Bezige Bij
Peter Terrin follows up his award-winning novel Post Mortem with this story revolving around Formula 1 racing. In Monte Carlo during the summer of 1968, mechanic Jack Preston saves the life of a young (and voluptuous) actress named DeeDee, and we follow his descent from adoration to self-preservation.
Terrin’s subdued style turns this potentially sensational joyride into a work of art where no stone is left unturned. Not a word in this condensed novel is superfluous. As he’s pursued by inevitable tragedy, Jack’s escapades and Terrin’s literary craftsmanship will linger in the reader’s memory.
The quirky family
Kom hier dat ik u kus (Come Here So I Can Kiss You)
Griet Op de Beeck • Prometheus
Journalist Griet Op de Beeck’s debut novel, Vele hemels boven de zevende (Many Heavens Above the Seventh), was an unexpected bestseller in Flanders and is soon to be made into a movie. Her second novel, Kom hier dat ik u kus, follows Mona, a nine-year-old who loses her mother, until she is an independent 35-year-old who has to say goodbye to her beloved father.
It’s a beautiful and funny portrait of a courageous woman scared to make mistakes while following her heart – a soap opera as well as a tale about a peculiar family, talented artists and egotistical men. It’s a novel to be savoured.
After De helaasheid...
Kaddisj voor een kut (Kaddish for a Cunt)
Dimitri Verhulst • Atlas / Contact
In De helaasheid der dingen (The Misfortunates), Dimitri Verhulst wrote a semi-autobiographical tale about his far-from-rosy childhood in small-town Flanders. After several more novels of varying degrees of success, he was back this year with another harrowing story that relates his time as a youth in a juvenile housing facility.
The first part of this short book deals with the funeral of Gianna, a beautiful girl in the institution who commits suicide, leading to a complaint about the church’s hypocrisy. The second part shines a light on two former detainees who kill their children to protect them from their stigmatised future. Dark, condensed and eloquent: This is trademark Verhulst, in the best sense.