A boy and his dog: new public sculpture honours literary heroes

Summary

A monument in front of Antwerp’s cathedral shows Nello and Patrasche, the heroes of the 19th-century novel A Dog of Flanders, sleeping under a cobblestone blanket

Home sweet home

A statue has been unveiled in front of Antwerp Cathedral depicting a young boy and his dog, in tribute to the stars of a beloved 19th-century novel that found fame in Japan before it became known in Flanders, where the story is set.

A Dog of Flanders was written by British author and animal rights activist Marie Louise de la Ramée, under the pen name Ouida. It tells the story of young orphan Nello, who grows up with his grandfather in a village near Antwerp.

One day, Nello and his grandfather rescue a dog who’s been beaten nearly to death, and Nello and the dog, Patrasche, become inseparable. Though the book is set in Flanders, it’s only relatively recently that it’s found fame in the region.

After reading about the book in the author’s obituary in 1908, a Japanese diplomat in New York sent a few copies of it home. The translation is now one of the best-known children’s stories in Japan, having become required reading for schoolchildren, and the anime adaptation in the 1970s was a nationwide hit. 

Cultural psyche

The hardship of the boy’s life, the wind and rain of Flanders and the tragic ending (in which the cathedral plays a major role) all fit perfectly with the Japanese national psyche. But strangely enough, nobody in Flanders knew about the story until the first translation appeared in the 1980s.

As more and more Japanese tourists to Flanders asked where they could find the sites mentioned in the book, the Antwerp district of Hoboken swiftly erected a small statue – only to be told by the Japanese that the figures didn’t look right to them at all.

 

It was high time that we embraced the most-read story about Flanders in the world

- Tour guide Tanguy Ottomer

Antwerp city guide Tanguy Ottomer felt the two characters deserved a better tribute. “It’s not nearly the honour such a story deserved,” he says.

He discovered A Dog of Flanders 10 years ago and was amazed that it was so little known, so he initiated a project to build a new monument. “It was high time that we embraced the most-read story about Flanders in the world.” 

Ottomer travelled to Japan for research, and he and a friend started a campaign to fund a new statue, this time in the centre of Antwerp. They found a Chinese diamond trader who was happy to provide the funds.

“With the plan and the money, we went to the city administration: All they had to do was say ‘yes’. Which they did.”

The white marble monument of Nello and Patrasche huddled together under a blanket of cobblestones was created by local artist Batist Vermeulen, who goes by the name of Tist. It was unveiled in December, in front of the city’s cathedral. “It’s a location we hadn’t dared dream of,” Ottomer says, “but it’s most fitting for the story.”

Photo: Batist Vermeulen