Eloquent new novel tackles destiny and inner peace


Anthropologist and novelist Koen Peeters has released his latest novel, about a boy who follows his heart to Africa and back again, in search of his true calling

Who are we?

Koen Peeters is an anthropologist with an eclectic and award-winning back catalogue of novels dealing with human turmoil. In his latest, set in 1944, he tells a tale of Belgium’s colonial past, the disappearance of a traditional lifestyle and a universal longing for the unknown.

The protagonist of De mensengenezer (The Human Healer) is Remi, a boy destined to follow in his father’s footsteps and take over the family farm. Haunted by dark dreams and his uncle’s tales of war and demons, he decides to change his path and becomes a Jesuit monk.

In the monastery, Remi studies and meditates, his world view changing as he finds inner peace. But soon the voices and the longing for something new return, and when a teacher tells Remi about his experiences in Congo, he embarks on a voyage that will change his life.

The idea for De mensengenezer originated during a discussion with Renaat Devisch, Peeters’ former professor of anthropology at the University of Leuven. “Every year we get together at his house,” Peeters explains, “the same group of 12 anthropologists, artists, people from abroad... and we talk about what we’re doing. We usually have very intense discussions.” 

A world of possibilities

During one of these talks, Devisch spoke about his background, and Peeters (pictured) was intrigued. “He put me in touch with his family where he grew up in the Westhoek area, as well as with several Jesuits, because he was a novice Jesuit for some time. I also went to Congo to see the places where he had worked.”

Although it was inspired by certain biographical aspects of Devisch’s life, De mensengenezer became a novel that explores humanity in general. Peeters wanted to ponder on how a personal life is intertwined with what we study, and the direction a life takes. He wanted to answer the question of why we become who we are.

When dealing with our dark side, we just talk about Africa to make it easier; but our inner demons are the same

- Koen Peeters

“On the one hand, it seems we are all destined to walk in someone else’s footsteps,” he says. “When we look in the mirror we frequently see the resemblance with our mother or father. Genetics and our family history naturally influence our lives, as does the place we are born.”

But he continues, “there are also encounters that make us choose our own path, and that’s what fascinates me. Although certain aspects are predetermined, you can still choose your own direction through experiences or visions”.

When Remi joins the Yaka tribe in Congo, he encounters demons, sorcerers and ghosts, opening up a world of possibilities. He decides to heal people in any way he can, and by the time he returns to the family home, he’s a changed man.

Communal decisions

Peeters believes that people in the West frequently use Congo as a metaphor for the things they don’t understand or can’t explain. “When dealing with our dark side, we just talk about Africa to make it easier; but our inner demons are the same.”

Some people talk about troubling issues, others keep silent, some create a dance or a ritual around it. People in Flanders, he says, have the tendency to keep quiet.

“At family parties, for example, you usually avoid tough subjects, but once in a while someone will allude to a death or an argument. Everybody will know what they’re talking about, but no one will say anything. This silence is a communal decision. Like Freud said, issues involving sex and death are sometimes tied to culture.” 

I just love talking to people about their history. I wrote everything down, and those documents are so valuable to me

- Koen Peeters

De mensengenezer involved a lot of research. Peeters started digging around in the Westhoek region four years ago, tracking certain people down, visiting cemeteries, talking to Jesuits. As an anthropologist, he says he found it fascinating. He also went to Congo.

“I needed to see it for myself,” he says, “but I also just love talking to people about their history. I wrote everything down, and those documents are so valuable to me, as several of those people have since passed away. Those notes were the foundations of this novel. I don’t have a lot of imagination, so I really needed my notes.”

De mensengenezer is a philosophical book that tries to find out who we are and what we will do with our legacy. Eloquently written and thought-provoking, the novel is something more than just an object on your nightstand. Peeters believes a book should influence or illuminate; De mensengenezer will certainly leave its mark.

De mensengenezer (★★★★) is published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij

Photo: Koen Broos

More new books this month

De babyboomboogie (The Baby Boom Boogie) Walter Van Den Broeck (Polis)
One of the cornerstones of Flemish literature is back with a novel set in the late 1950s, when the World Expo came to Belgium and introduced us to modernity. Ronny and Eddy, two ordinary Flemish boys, meet during their studies, both hoping for wealth through minimal effort. One decides to hang out with celebrities, the other wants to con the world. Soon enough they fall out, a feud that will lead them down a slippery slope of art, sex, travel, taxis and bank jobs. Witty, poignant and a joy to read. ★★★★

Omtrent liefde en dood (About Love and Death) Erwin Mortier (De Bezige Bij) 
The title of Erwin Mortier’s latest book is a reference to Tien brieven rondom liefde en dood (Ten Letters about Love and Death), a book of letters by the late Flemish author Jef Geeraerts. Mortier recalls memories of the period after Geeraerts lost his beloved wife, Eleonore Vigenon. He has created a beautiful and poetic portrait about the love between two of his closest friends and how fate can intervene. An homage to one of Flanders’ best-known writers and a mesmerising meditation on how we deal with the loss of a loved one. ★★★★

Wreed schoon (Cruelly Beautiful) Marita de Sterck (Polis)
Marita de Sterck is an anthropologist at heart: Along with several historical novels for young people, she has published collections of folktales. Wreed schoon is the latest. Illustrated by her son, Jonas Thys, the book is composed of 75 uncensored fairy-tales from more than 40 cultures that inhabit Belgium and the Netherlands, rewritten in clear and modern Dutch. Wreed Schoon is an interesting look at the world of narration and how stories connect cultures and generations. ★★★☆