An exceptional debut about the mysterious death of a young man
Marcel bears witness to Erwin Mortier’s exceptional writing talent. His first novel, peppered with countless striking metaphors and colloquialisms, describes the vivid history of a family in a Flemish village.
He conjures up a tangible, yet secretive, ambiance from the very first sentence: ‘The house was like all the others in the street, subsided somewhat crookedly after two centuries of habitation, stormy winds and war. (…) Most rooms housed a limbo of darkness, cool in summer, in winter bleak. Elsewhere the stones exuded the odours of generations of midday meals, as they did in the kitchen, where grease coated the ceiling. The cellar was for preserving, the attic was for forgetting.’
In this house, bowed down under the weight of history, lives a young boy of ten – the narrator – with his grandmother. Undoubtedly the figure with the most character, she, ‘the most contrary guardian of her breed’, watches over the family past like a hawk. In the living room photographs of her dead loved ones are lined up in a glass-fronted cabinet. Among these photographs is a portrait of Marcel, once the apple of the family’s eye, who died young. The circumstances of Marcel’s death are a mystery to the young boy. Little by little he uncovers the facts. At first he does not understand the allusions to Marcel’s ‘black’ past but once he discovers letters from Marcel in the attic and, full of pride, shows them to his teacher at school, all is revealed.
The boy shows the class one of the letters from Marcel. There is an eagle on it. ‘“It’s carrying something in its claws,? I said, “can’t you see it? It looks like an alarm clock with four hands and they look broken. (…) Maybe it’s a spider, Miss, a fat spider.? Miss Veegaete laid the envelope on her desk. “It’s not a spider.? She looked down at the floor and then, very quietly: It’s a swastika.?’ Marcel died on the Eastern Front, a soldier in the SS. Not out of admiration for Hitler, ‘The Moustache’, but for the sake of Flanders. Marcel was ‘wrong’. This had given his family, who had always supported him, a very bad name in the village.
The essence of the novel is a cautious fumbling for truth. The young boy attempts to fathom his grandmother’s proud, dour demeanour and to get closer to his teacher, with whom he is secretly in love. But above all he wants to understand what happened to Marcel. Erwin Mortier unravels this shameful family past in an unusually sensitive and evocative manner.