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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Belgium in the raw - for this young boy, a place of drunkenness and general debauchery
In The Misfortunates, Dimitri Verhulst has given us an image of a working-class suburb (the fictional "Arsendegem") of an un-named town in Belgium where drunkenness and low-level violence predominate.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Dimitri Verhulst was came from a broken home "and spent his childhood in foster homes and institutes". The publicity for the...
Published on 5 Jan 2012 by A Common Reader

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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 'a funny kind of love'
I discovered Verhulst by accident after taking a punt on his rather wonderful novella Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill. I knew back then when I read it that it was something of a departure from Verhulst's previous output and Portobello Books are now publishing the autobiographical novel that he published in the same year. The shorthand precis on the back of my proof:...
Published on 3 Jan 2012 by William Rycroft


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Belgium in the raw - for this young boy, a place of drunkenness and general debauchery, 5 Jan 2012
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A Common Reader "Committed to reading" (Sussex, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Misfortunates (Kindle Edition)
In The Misfortunates, Dimitri Verhulst has given us an image of a working-class suburb (the fictional "Arsendegem") of an un-named town in Belgium where drunkenness and low-level violence predominate.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Dimitri Verhulst was came from a broken home "and spent his childhood in foster homes and institutes". The publicity for the book says that it is semi-autobiographical - a book where the author has taken his life as a starting point and then embellished the bare bones of his life to make it more entertaining and readable. The reader never knows where reality ends and fiction begins but as the boy in The Misfortunates is called "Dimmy" there is obviously enough reality in the book that the author can say, "This was my life".

The Misfortunates is a collection of vividly described episodes from the childhood and youth of a boy living in a family which is so dysfunctional that its difficult to see how a child could survive it. This is a world of drinking, violence and poverty so severe that it is not surprising that Dimmy ends up being taken into care. The book reminded me a little of Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in that it doesn't try to tell the whole life story of the boy but describes various episodes in his life.

The family's life revolves around the pubs of the locality including The Liars' Haven, which hosts a drinking competition based on the Tour de France, in which each stage consisted of drinking monumental amounts of beer.

On one occasion a bailiff comes to the house to claim recompense for the family's debts only to find that the furniture is so broken and battered that its not worth taking. Eventually taking the television with him, the family are left having to find somewhere to watch that night's Roy Orbison concert. They con their way into the home of a local immigrant couple, bringing a case of beer with them and show the couple "the true face of Belgium" by hurling cushions at the ceiling and dancing on the table.

One riotous episode follows another. Social workers pass through, sessions in drying-out clinics are wasted away with extravagant, beer-soaked, home-coming celebrations. Eventually Dimmy grows up and away from his dreadful family - a man apart, driven by an internal search for something better.

I tend to think of Belgium as a fairly cultured European nation and was surprised at the level of debauchery apparently found in Dimitri Verhulst's Aresendegem. However, the book is humorous throughout and despite the crudeness of the events described, the author frequently launches off into lyrical prose which adds a layer of unexpected beauty onto this terrible world.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars recollections of a very different childhood and youth, 18 Feb 2012
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This review is from: The Misfortunates (Paperback)
This novel is told from the standpoint of the grown-up Dimitri, and is a recreation of scenes from his childhood in a close by chaotic Belgium family with a grandmother, sons of many ages given to drinking and Dimitry, her grandson, also learning the ways of life in such a family.

There are memorable episodes - the family watching Roy Orbison's Black and White Night in the house of unsuspecting immigrants to Belgium who have invited them round to integrate better (Roy Orbison being a big hero of the misfortunate family), and Dimitry's farewell to his now demented grandmother, initially touching and then comic as his uncles insist on his joining them and her to try to recollect and re-enact drinking songs for a folklorist. Both the sadness at leaving behind such roots and the clear benefits of living a more 'normal' life as a writer come through.

Not a great work, I felt as I reached the end of this short novel, but certainly something very different.

Two footnotes about Verhulst's life, drawn from an interview in The Big Issue: his father died at 37 from cancer and had made at that time 5 unsuccessful efforts to stop drinking; Verhulst finally lost all contact with his uncles after his book, published originally in 2006, was turned into a film which was very successful in Belgium and there was too much press interest in their lives...
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5.0 out of 5 stars Smashing, 5 Jun 2013
This review is from: The Misfortunates (Paperback)
This is a young masterpiece of contemporary realism, more linguistically inventive in Dutch than in English translation, a story about love, laughter, unhappiness, and creativity, a grotesk painting of the social and psychological dysfunction of outdated patriarchal values.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Legend of the Belgium Drinkers, 16 Oct 2012
This review is from: The Misfortunates (Paperback)
Dimitri Vehulst has written a compelling novel that would appear unfortunately autobiographical on the Vehulst family kept low through generations because of their enslavement to drink. His grandmother provides the barest maintenance and shelter for him and his father and uncles. Despite the depths that they sink to, the rotten clothes, stinking house and the disease there is a nobility of sorts: a frank no apologies and no sympathy creed. Dimitri scores hits on bourgeois attitudes and anxieties. He's scornful of their lack of steadfastness and facile hobbies and makes plenty of interesting commentaries. There is a brilliant skewering of collectors. Above all this is a hilarious book. Comic genius is reached when one uncle attempts a Tour de France style competition to find the best drinker and his grandmother misconstrues this as a genuine interest in the sport of cycling. From the blackest depths and most desperate wretches a divine comedy emerges.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 'a funny kind of love', 3 Jan 2012
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This review is from: The Misfortunates (Paperback)
I discovered Verhulst by accident after taking a punt on his rather wonderful novella Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill. I knew back then when I read it that it was something of a departure from Verhulst's previous output and Portobello Books are now publishing the autobiographical novel that he published in the same year. The shorthand precis on the back of my proof: Think Shameless with mayo on the chips (this book was actually turned into a film with a quite brilliant title). This coming of age tale is narrated by Verhulst himself (yes, he uses his own name) beginning at the age of thirteen when he lived with his father, his uncles and his grandmother in the onomatopoeically named Aresendegem (presumably the arse-end of some small town) in Belgium, 'a town the great cartographers forgot, an ugly backwater, but a great place for drizzle and pigeon fancying.'

Now, I nearly gave up on this one, I'll be honest. After the first couple of chapters I got the sense that what I was going to read were a series of vignettes based on Verhulst's own chaotic upbringing. Colourful characters, entertaining set-pieces, all very good but not enough to maintain my interest throughout. What comes along to save it at first is the set-piece to end all set-pieces. We've all played some kind of drinking game in the past I'm sure but the Verhulst's have slightly larger ambitions. In a chapter entitled The Tour de France an extraordinary drinking competition is created by the young Girder, ruled out of the official world-record drinking competition by his age, in line with the famous bike race. 19 stages with 5km equal to a standard glass of alcohol, meaning that 'even a reasonably short stage of 180 kilometres would involve drinking 36 standard glasses of alcohol. Against the clock' There are even three jerseys to earn.

'The yellow jersey was for the leader and eventual winner...the greenn jersey for the explosive sprinter: the neck-it king. And the polka-dot jersey could be captured in the mountains, where you proceeded by guzzling strong drinks like whisky and vodka.'

What follows is a drinking marathon of epic proportions during which Girder's mother, seeing her son return home each night looking 'as pale as a corpse and with a beard of dried vomit' worries about his new found enthusiasm for cycling and buys him a brand new racing bike (which eventually finds its way to scrap metal dealer to help pay for all the booze). The descriptions of this sustained drinking binge come with all the seriousness of sports commentary and for Girder it is all about the pursuit of what Dino Buzatti called The Idea, all of this mock-seriousness providing plenty of entertainment for the reader.

There is another strong chapter to follow in which, after a visit from the bailiffs and the removal of their television, the family visit the house of some Iranian neighbours ('So these were foreigners') so that they can watch Roy Orbison's comeback concert, A Black and White Night, Dimitri's father being a die-hard Orbison fan. What follows is something of a culture shock for the Iranians and an emotional high point for the Verhulsts, one of the many episodes in which joy and triumph are found in the most unlikely situations. These peaks and the liberal sprinkling of humour are important in what could have been a grim book and even something like the memory of helping his mother (absent now and referred to as a whore) with her moustache removal - 'an enormous operation that always made me think of a religious rite in a country I don't ever want to visit.' - is one filled with some kind of love.

And that's what this novel ends up expressing: a funny kind of love. Near the end we hear the famous family story about Dimitri's birth, how his father was down the pub after too many false alarms, finally cycled to the maternity hospital and left 5 minutes later with baby in hand to take his newborn son on a tour of the town in the basket of his bicycle.

'Sister Philomena in the corridor, barking at my father: 'Where do you think you're going with that child?'
Me in his arms.
'It's my son, I'll take him wherever I like.'
'Mr Verhulst, he was only born this morning.'
'He's my son. If you want kids of your own to boss around, chuck your wimple over the hedge and hike up your dress, the rest'll take care of itself.' And he carried me out the door.'

This is not a particularly responsible family and yet they have their moments. For all the high jinks there are of course serious moments. There is no doubting the concern on the day when his father announces he wants to go into rehab. And along with death it is of course the promise of new life that also heralds the need to grow up and become responsible. When Dimitri stupidly gets someone pregnant it marks the beginning of a new life, particularly as it is someone whom he doesn't really love and with whom he has no future.

'How could I have been so sure, for all those years, that my fertility would adjust itself to my convictions, that the unwillingness in my brain would metastasize in my testicles? A character like me could only have been devised by Greek tragedians or by the scriptwriters of the kind of soap operas that put the logic of character development on the back burner in favour of general stupidity.'

There is a general stupidity to this novel and a sense that it isn't really a novel at all, falling somewhere between memoir and short stories, all of which means that I wasn't nearly as enthused by this book as Madame Verona. That said, I'm glad I gave it a chance. Like the Tour de France it has various stages, some of which suit some riders better than others.
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The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst (Hardcover - 15 Oct 2013)
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