Life is short: story collection offers surrealism and humour

Summary

Annelies Verbeke has released her third collection of short stories, with protagonists including a clairvoyant baby and an author who turns into a bear

Different voices

Annelies Verbeke is a true wordsmith. Whether she’s writing novels, (screen)plays or short story collections, her elegant prose and mix of styles and genres is a thing to admire. In Halleluja, her third collection, she takes storytelling to the next level.

Verbeke, 41, enjoys reading short stories herself. “I love their intensity,” she says. “There’s no background information about the characters; you immediately become part of someone’s life. And by writing them in the short term, you add a certain emotional fervour that could get lost in a novel.”

The 15 stories in Halleluja revolve around one theme: the beginning and the end. “Using a central theme in a collection gives you the opportunity to look at that theme from different perspectives,” she explains.

In a novel, “you have to stay true to one idea or to one voice for a long time, which is rather exhausting. Short stories are also the perfect way to experiment with form and content.”

The first story, “Huilbaby” (Cry Baby), is the perfect example. As it’s told from the point of view of an infant, “it isn’t a voice I could have maintained for an entire novel”.

Fine line

With Halleluja, Verbeke has created an array of situations and characters who long for some form of catharsis: a baby who can see into the future, a couple who go back to basics and live like cave people, a woman who wakes up in someone else’s life, an architect who believes the end of the world is nigh.

Verbeke (pictured) chose the title because it can be used in so many contexts. Despite its occasional dark tone, the collection sports much fantasy and a sense of humour; Verbeke walks the fine line between reality and the surreal with aplomb. 

By making stories just a tad surreal or adding metaphors, it becomes easier to talk about certain subjects

- Annelies Verbeke

The characters, in any case, are people of flesh and bone with recognisable emotions – loss, fear, despair – even if the setting and circumstances might be out of the ordinary. “You shouldn’t add surrealism just to be a bit different,” Verbeke says. “It has to be there for a reason.”

Sometimes, she believes, it actually makes things clearer. “In my whole oeuvre there’s this deeper, darker layer shining through our daily lives. Literature is the perfect way to make it tangible. In Halleluja I may have made it a little more surreal than usual, but by making stories just a tad surreal or adding metaphors, it becomes easier to talk about certain subjects.”

In “De Beer” (The Bear), a female author wakes up as a male bear. Verbeke: “It’s a way to talk about a particular sadness within this character without having to be too literal.” 

Cathartic

The character in “De Beer” is called de auteur (the author) and is Verbeke’s alter-ego. She first made her appearance in a story for Flemish-Dutch cultural organisation DeBuren as part of a series called Citybooks, in which Verbeke wrote about her home town of Ghent.

“I wrote about my daily life in the city from the viewpoint of de auteur, which also became quite surreal,” she says. “By creating de auteur, I could talk about myself as if I were a character and make myself do things I wouldn’t or couldn’t normally do. I liked that character so much, I decided it should come back in other publications.”

The mood of “De Beer” conveys her own state of mind at the time. For a while she was very tired and sad, she says, “and after I wrote that story, it was over. Making yourself into a character can be quite cathartic”.

Halleluja is a dark but often funny collection that shines a light on life’s hidden depths, despite its heightened sense of reality. Verbeke has created strong characters that are real and relatable, in an original, diverse and wildly entertaining reading experience that should be slowly savoured.

Halleluja (★★★★) is published in Dutch by De Geus

Photo: Alex Salinas

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