Next Year in Berchem
A beautiful story of a father told by children
In 1989 Leo Pleysier started writing a series of books in which various family members talk about their lives and about the way in which they deal with their own memories. The mother (Wit is altijd schoon,1989), the sister (De kast, 1991), the nun-aunt (De Gele Rivier is bevrozen, 1993) and the brother (Zwart van het volk, 1996) have all come up for review. In Volgend jaar in Berchem it is the father who is the central character, but with one important difference. Unlike in the previous novels, the central character does not speak.
He looms large in the stories told by his children at a New Year’s gathering in one of their homes. There is one more difference: the voice of the narrator, also one of the children, is absent from the chorus. We are gradually given to understand that he is recovering from a throat operation and is unable to speak.
It is evident from the stories told by the other members of the family that the throat operation is also a metaphor for the impossibility of verbally recalling the long-dead father at all. He was a cattle dealer and a smuggler, living in a world which his children were never able to fathom. ‘It was always hard to get anywhere close to him’, is how one of his children put it; another reminisces on the fact that he did not always see the difference between his cattle and his children. ‘Father genuinely loved his children!’ the oldest brother assures us. ‘But it would have been better if his love had hurt a bit less,’ answers a sister. In other words there is something mysterious and frightening about the father figure; he is a giant shadow looming behind all the stories, each time in a different way. Each voice fills in the memories differently, and each person’s own memories become part of a collective memory which changes as each year comes and goes.
Volgend jaar in Berchem is about the pain, the coldness and the loneliness which are bound up with this paradoxal love for the father. The problematic nature of this love is never actually put into words and all the accounts circumnavigate the real facts. This is apparent from remarks made about the discontented children who are fooling around with an electric plug, which is, of course, forbidden. They are spoilt, and have been given almost the exact opposite of their parents’ upbringing. Pleysier is a master at giving voice to that great and painful silence of the generations. This he does without using any great emphasis, so that the reader feels he is a guest, and, like the narrator, looks forward to being invited to Berchem again next year.