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.
In this short but unsettling autobiographical book describing a family of alcoholics living in the Belgian working-class suburb of Arsendegem [‘where everything beautiful must leave or be destroyed’ and where ‘there was zero chance of a conifer surviving for more than two years on an access route to a good pub because all our men would piss on it.’], two scenes stand out.
The inexpressible love that the narrator, Dimmy, feels for his grandmother who, at the end of the book, is languishing with dementia in a care home and, earlier, the icy callousness when his son is born to a woman he feels has trapped him [‘There are two people I hate. One gave birth to me and the other was giving birth to my child.’].
This is not a book for the squeamish – it describes the consequences of alcoholism, the behavior of those concerned as they lose all their faculties, and the consequences that this behavior has on Dimmy’s family life. Underlying these is the threat and reality of violence, often against women. The author, rather miraculously, managed to break free of his demons and has become a novelist and poet of some renown. Here he presents discontinuous expressionist scenes from his childhood to the point where, on returning home, he finds his old relationships fragmented and distanced.
Each chapter recounts a different segment of Dimmy’s life and breaks off without the ending being obvious; this creates an entity that is significantly more than a series of short stories. The central characters are Dimmy’s immediate family, his postman father, Pierre, grandmother and four uncles, including Girder and Herman, together with others from the rapidly-diminishing drinking circle. All the brothers have, unsurprisingly, come home from broken marriages to live with their mother in poverty since they spend all their money on drink. They are all heading for an early death from cancer or drink-related conditions but they retain their pride, ‘We were poor, always had been, but we bore our poverty with pride. A flash car in front of the house was a humiliation’.
At one point, Pierre surprises the family and the reader by entering a clinic to dry out leaving his mother feeling, for once, elated. Reviewer William Jordan points out that this desperate attempt was repeated many times before Pierre died in his thirties. Girder creates a drunkard’s Tour de France with each glass representing five kilometres and added rules for time trials and hill climbs. The competitors don cycling gear and the leaders even wear the appropriate coloured jerseys. The grandmother, believing her son is really racing spends all her money, and more, on buying him a racing bike that ends up at the scrap metal dealer’s to pay for the drink. Dimmy’s family worship Roy Orbison and, in one of the funniest sections, visit an immigrant, Iranian family to watch his comeback show since their own TV has, like everything else, been taken by bailiffs. They show the Iranians ‘the true face of Belgium’ by hurling cushions at the ceiling and dancing on the table.
Women come off very badly, whether they be the deformed twin daughters of an alcoholic bar owner, Marieka, suffering from Down’s Syndrome, who is his grandmother’s closest friend in the care home, or the respectable Auntie Rose, in an abusive marriage, and her daughter, Sylvie. The latter’s introduction to the men’s drinking hole includes her viewing one of the drinker’s colostomy bag, drinking, peeing in public and learning the words of the drinkers many songs.
Pee is as central to this story as alcohol with copious amounts of both appearing on almost every page. Dimmy’s mother suffered severe urinary problems at his birth but managed to obtain a ‘pee card’ which allowed her to ‘pee for free’. The young Dimmy remembered girls peeing in a pond and attracting fish who ‘gulped the nutrients a jet of urine apparently contained’. Needless to say, these fish were a delicacy.
This could have been yet another ‘misery memoir’, albeit embellished, but the author’s observation, succinct style and wry humour elevate this to a work of real, but intensely disquieting, literature. Especial mention must be made of the wonderful cover illustration, by Stinkachu, and of the translator, David Colmer, who has created a truly authentic account of an undoubtedly complex Dutch original. The greatest poignancy is in the comment at the beginning of the book ‘…. In memory of my grandmother, who wanted to avoid the shame and died while I was completing the last pages of the manuscript’.
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...
on 5 June 2013
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.