Flemish writer draws curtain on exceptional 30-year career

Summary

Walter van den Broeck, one of Flanders’ best storytellers, says he has written his final novel – for now

“Just in case”

De vreemdelinge (The Stranger), Walter van den Broeck’s latest novel, is a family chronicle, both a philosophical contemplation and a snapshot of our daily lives through the eyes of an aging bookseller. Arguably one of Flanders’ greatest storytellers, van den Broeck is best known for his funny, accessible and multilayered accounts of contemporary society.

De vreemdelinge, however, is something quite different – much more subtle and dark than the writer’s usual fare.

After discovering that he had a knack for writing, former teacher van den Broeck (pictured) published his debut novel De troonopvolger (Heir to the Throne) in 1967, and he has released numerous novels and plays since then. His most famous play, Groenten uit Balen, was adapted to the big screen in 2011.

His big break as an author came with Brief aan Boudewijn (Letter to Boudewijn) in 1980, a novel in which he gave the former Belgian king a tour of his hometown and, in the process, offered a compelling portrait of Flanders. The book also functioned as the precursor to his magnum opus, the four-volume series Het Beleg van Laken (The Siege of Laken).

But royalty isn’t the only reccurring theme in the oeuvre of van den Broeck, who was born in Olen, Antwerp province, and now lives in Turnhout. His novels are also often packed with autobiographical elements, which he uses to depict small-town Flanders from the viewpoint of the ordinary citizen.

Such is the case with De vreemdelinge, which tells the tale of Bram de Landsheer, a retired book salesman and an avid reader. He has left his business to his son, Raf, an idealist who prefers to offer literary classics and first editions rather than bestsellers.

A revealing encounter

Because he struggles to connect with his son, Bram spends a lot of time with his grandson, Dries, who also shows more interest in books than girls – to the chagrin of Bram who longs for a (great) granddaughter. But the old man turns hopeful when Dries meets Tess, an enchanting stranger in this melancholy male world.

After the first sentence of my debut novel, I wondered what would follow

- Walter van den Broeck

Van den Broeck’s writing process isn’t straightforward, he says. “I have all kinds of thoughts, feelings and ideas, and then suddenly something triggers one of them and everything falls into place,” he explains.

The trigger for De vreemdelinge was an encounter with a childhood friend at a reception. “He was accompanied by his daughter, who is as old as my eldest grandson, which made me realise that I have two sons and three grandsons. The main character in De vreemdelinge has even more sons, and I would have loved to have a daughter or a granddaughter.”

This longing for a daughter or granddaughter isn’t the only thing the writer has in common with his main character. Bram is a member of a men’s club, de Koninklijke Kamer van Reflectie en Consideratie (The Royal Chamber of Reflection and Consideration), just like van den Broeck. “It’s basically an excuse to get together and contemplate the world and our surroundings,” he says.

In De vreemdelinge, those surroundings don’t inspire much hope; the novel is filled with extreme meteorological phenomena and doomed characters. “There might be other planets where there’s life, but Earth just happens to have all the variables to sustain it,” the writer says. “However, if we keep continuing the way we are, that might not be the case in a few hundred years. That might sound pessimistic, but it’s also realistic.”

This kind of fatalist mood permeates the novel and is hinted at in the title, a clear reference to French writer Albert Camus’ 1942 masterpiece The Stranger. “Camus and his existential ideology are woven throughout the novel,” says van den Broeck. “He said that man is the only living being that knows it will die, so what is the point of living if you know it will end?” 

Statistically speaking …

For van den Broeck, that means that the only worthwhile question in philosophy is whether to end it yourself or not. “Camus went on to say that despite knowing the outcome, you should go forth anyway. But Tess, ‘the stranger’ in this case, doesn’t agree with him.”

The result is a haunting and fascinating piece of fiction, evidence that van den Broeck’s prose is still as rich as ever.

Van den Broeck, who turns 74 this month, has been writing for almost 50 years and still hasn’t found a method to his madness. “I don’t have subjects I want to write about,” he explains. “I’m inspired by certain things, and then I start to write. I’ve written novels that are completely autobiographical and novels that are complete fiction. When I was writing my debut novel, I started typing, and, after the first sentence, I wondered what would follow. It ended up being another 304 pages.”

Van den Broeck has said De vreemdelinge will be his final book. “I’d find it terrible if I left a novel unfinished, which is why I am calling De vreemdelinge my last novel,” he says. “I might write another one but, statistically speaking, I only have another six years to live. So I’m calling this one my last, just in case.”

Pessimism aside – or should I say realism – let’s hope he’s mistaken.
De vreemdelinge (★★★☆) is published by De Bezige Bij

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