A cheerful sketch of Flemish rural life
In the early twentieth century Felix Timmermans was wrestling with a religious and moral crisis, partly because of the depressing naturalism which prevailed at the time. A major operation made things worse. Then he suddenly worked himself out of his rut by avidly embracing life. Pallieter bears witness to this newfound liberation. More than a million copies have been sold to date and Pallieter, the name of the main character, became such a household word in the last century that tobacco and gin produced in Belgium, were named after him.
Felix Timmermans’ own illustrations to his story link the book closely to Pieter Brueghel, whose sixteenth-century paintings inspired a number of the author’s tableaux. Pallieter is a picture book, a sketch of Flemish rural life in which there is never a cheerless moment. The miller Pallieter marries his Marieke, fathers triplets, and heads off into the world on a hay cart with the whole family. All their neighbours drink heartily and sing at the top of their voices as they celebrate festivals and merrily bring in the hay, slapping each other on the shoulder and exchanging smacking great kisses. When the slightest shadow falls over the land they look trustingly up at the sky, and find the sun peeking its way back through the clouds.
It’s enough to drive a realist to distraction, but Timmermans never aimed to tell a credible story. He set out to depict a mood, carpe diem - rechristened folkloricly by Timmermans as ‘milk the day!’ - and it raised him up out of his gloom. Pallieter is a symphony in major and must be enjoyed as such. It is music that resounds, and every chapter invites the reader to dance. Imagine the farmer’s party where Pallieter knocks back one too many and pinches Marieke’s bottom. Read on as waffles and sugared beer are set aside for pipes and gin - the reason these products were given the brand name Pallieter –, songs are sung, and anticlerical jokes do the rounds. Hear Pallieter in a quiet moment as he looks at the sky and the land: ‘She’ll be an eve’nin in a thousand.’
Timmermans has captured a vivid dream in words. With his clear melody he has seduced millions of readers into joining a giant folk dance.