Lost in the Mail
Impressive novel about Belgian affairs and secrets: the social commitment of a scintillating storyteller
It is not inconceivable that readers of Walter van den Broeck’s Verdwaalde post will find themselves carefully monitoring their health for some time afterwards. They will have just finished a text which supposedly contains a literally lethal combination of words: a combination which in the book at least costs the life of every unsuspecting reader. And Verdwaalde post is set up in such a way that one soon forgets that this is ‘only’ fiction.
Van den Broeck manages to overpower the reader with words, until what he writes no longer seems like invention, but reality, and the notion of paying with one’s life for reading the book suddenly becomes plausible.
On the evidence of previous work, this game of fiction and truth is familiar territory for Van den Broeck, and in his new book he has resorted to a well-tried device: finding, or in this case being sent, a manuscript. It lands on the desk of the writer (who forwards it unread to his publisher) via the widow of the poet Jonathan Siebens, whose third and last volume was savaged by Van den Broeck. The widow’s letter precedes others from Siebens to Van den Broeck, and from an ex-advertising colleague, Florian Dedecker, to Siebens. The package also contains a typescript - containing the lethal combination - called The Word Break, written by Emma Leblanc in order to exact revenge for Siebens’ supposed betrayal of their youthful love affair. There are also two transcripts of tapes on which she has recorded her version of the story. All these characters have meanwhile died as a result of the lethal word combination (except, of course, Van den Broeck, who forwarded the package unread). On the face of it a complex structure, yet the reader is drawn effortlessly into the story, one version succeeding the other effortlessly, so that the structure scarcely calls attention to itself, making the meaning all the clearer.
Verdwaalde post is a novel about authenticity and identity, and their loss. These are what Siebens was aiming for in his writing, as he tried to write poems which would lead to active opposition to a culture. But authenticity is also the aim of advertising in the postmodern consumer society - and advertising is where both Siebens and Emma eventually make their careers. The masterly irony of Verdwaalde post is that the ideological message is never over-insistent, but is itself seductively packaged, in accordance with the precepts of advertising. The book reads like a thriller, keeping the reader in suspense until the end, but subsequently making him wonder how long he himself has left to live.