The Sorrow of Belgium

Hugo Claus

translated from the Dutch by Arnold J. Pomerans
Penguin 1991
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
The first part of The Sorrow of Belgium ("The Sorrow") narrates Louis Steynaeve's time in a boarding school run by nuns, in the lead up to the Second World War. The longer second part continues the story of his adolescence, and of his family, during the war and through to 1947. Much of The Sorrow of Belgium is clearly autobiographical: it ends with Louis writing "The Sorrow" and his voice and that of the third-person narrator blur into one another, mixing innocence and experience. The maturing Louis and his extensive family (including almost a dozen uncles and aunts) provide the vehicle for an insightful portrait of life in West Flanders during the war.

Politics pervades the story. There are conflicts between speakers of Flemish and French and between Anglophiles, Francophiles and Germanophiles. Even those categories are complicated:

"There has also been talk of a separate Flemish State. The VNV is against it, they want a Great Netherlands (as if the Dutch would be fools enough to allow themselves to be landed with all those Catholics all in one go). The Dinasos are against it, too, they want a Burgundian Empire. DEVLag is against it because they want to incorporate us into the Great German Reich, soon to become the Great European Reich, and straight after that the Great Thousand-Year World Reich. So who in the world wants a separate Flemish State? One person, at any rate: Papa, holding forth at Felix the barber's."
And then there are the different forms of collaboration, corruption, and black market profiteering, revenge for which is inconsistently taken after the war, when different connections become important. None of this ever takes the focus for long, however: rather than any kind of extended treatment, we are offered brief vignettes and short, sharp insights.

Much interest comes from Louis's sexual stumblings — his early naivety, guilt over masturbation, homoerotic feelings, and experiences both with girls his own age and older women — and his observation of the infidelities and amours of his family. Important information is often incidentally conveyed. We discover that Louis masturbates, for example, when his mother comes into his bedroom abruptly and he is worried about semen being visible on his towel. And when one of the neighbouring children goes into a hut with Dirty Dick for a few francs, Louis doesn't understand what is happening. Collectively all these episodes effect an indictment of the hypocrisies of society about sex, but again they are not fitted into any overriding argument.

And so with everything else in The Sorrow of Belgium. Religion is never directly engaged with, let alone questioned — Catholicism is an intrinsic part of the framework of society — but it is touched on continually: Louis's early earnestness, his fervent monastic teacher "the Rock", the influence of the bishop, and so forth. The large cast of characters is also developed in pointillist fashion, without introduction. And other episodes come from Louis' fantasies and dreams, stories he invents for others, or rumours he overhears.

"It was sister Imelda who was sitting in Louis's room, because although her face had been replaced by a featureless, pumicelike tumor, he recognized her peasant bosom, her smell of nature. She spread her knees, and from between the black billows she carefully pulled a skinned rabbit, or was it a cat? Unfortunately he couldn't see the skull properly, she stroked the naked, blood-spattered carcass to which tufts of fur still clung, the pupils were not slit-shaped but round, like little pink pills.
He was woken by the siren, the antiaircraft guns and Papa calling him. Papa always called him, vigilant watchman of the night, even though he knew that Louis would still not follow him and Mama down to the air raid shelter with its crowds of quaking, praying neighbors."
And there is no explicit marking of the progress of time, which we must guess at from incidental references to outside events.

Hugo Claus makes adroit use of language and dialogue. Many of the linguistic nuances must have been lost in translation, but Pomerans captures something of the significance of language and dialect switching (and a brief translator's note outlines the ethnolinguistic background). Absent metanarratives notwithstanding, the component pieces of The Sorrow of Belgium are held together by finely woven strands, worked into a flowing narrative which never gets bogged down or loses our attention. The result is a genuinely compelling story, understandably considered one of the great Dutch novels.

December 2002

External links:
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Related reviews:
- Harry Mulisch - The Assault
- Hugo Claus - Wonder
- more Dutch literature
- books about the Low Countries
- books about World War II
- more war fiction
- other "best book" selections
%T The Sorrow of Belgium
%A Claus, Hugo
%M Dutch
%F Pomerans, Arnold J.
%I Penguin
%D 1991
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0140188010
%P 608pp