Land of Cheeks
An alternately heartrending and funny book: An autobiography in portraits, letters and stories
The Flemish poet and prose-writer Luuk Gruwez is a writer who sets great store by his style and composition. Het land van de wangen is a logical sequel to his prize-winning prose debut. The greater part of the book is written as a journal, secretly kept up to date in the lavatory while paying his weekly visit to his grandparents - ‘helping them to die’.
In his work Gruwez has always shown his concern with recording the intimate moments of his life, moments doomed to oblivion. There were many such moments to record during his grandparents’ last days in the old weaving village of his youth. Between disconcerting passages about a demented couple who have lost all shame and fear, the grandson conjures up their better years. Gruwez does not wish to brush over their decline, rather to show how seamlessly glory and decline can merge. The scene in which the ninety-year-old grandfather telephones the emergency number in the middle of the night is dramatic. Five minutes later an ambulance stands outside the door. The paramedics find grandpa in his armchair, sipping a glass of wine. He had only called because he felt ‘a bit lonely’. ‘But Sir!’, they protest and leave almost immediately. ‘An emergency of loneliness; that is not what they trained for.’ With this last sentence Gruwez completes the anecdote in an apt and poetic way. Gruwez calls his mother’s ugly cat ‘the outcast in the land of the Aristocats’, and himself ‘the most timid singer in the Tomtits’ Nest boys’ choir’. Such phrases unmistakably betray the poet behind the prose-writer.
Het land van de wangen is not only about the writer’s grandparents; it also contains letters to colleagues and descriptions of journeys through southern Europe, in which, among other things, he searches in vain for his first young love. He finally spies her in a garden but is immediately and unceremoniously chased away from her doorstep. In this moving book Gruwez, through the stories of others, portrays himself in the background as friend, lover, son and grandson. The writing itself is primarily a means of immortalising others; Het land van de wangen can be read as a character sketch of someone who can only define himself through his association with people in his immediate surroundings.