Belgium: Europe’s Bastard Son
This book is a portrait of Belgium based on a number of journeys Barnard made in recent years, as well as a self-portrait, owing to the author’s deep involvement with his adopted country. In dazzling style, he advocates the tolerant muddle which is the characteristic feature of his new fatherland. By talking to the people he encounters at monuments, tombstones or memorials, in bars or in hotels, he reveals a people and their history. The encounters show that Barnard’s probing questions and Dutch accent prevent him from ever merging fully with his surroundings.
The honesty with which he confesses this is one of his many charms. The reader witnesses Barnard annexing the country bit by bit on his way to declaring himself a permanent resident.
In the most beautiful pieces the romantic dreamer’s surroundings have a tendency to bring him back down to the Flemish earth with a bang. Barnard meets a café owner near a leftover section of World War I trenches. He’s selling tickets: admission is one hundred Belgian francs but for two hundred the visitor gets a bullet as a souvenir. With the empty copper cartridge in his pocket Barnard descends into the trench. Another wonderful piece is about the Three Country Point (where the Netherlands meets Germany and Belgium) which once offered a view out over a fourth country: Neutral Moresnet, where the learned Wilhelm Molly hoped to establish the World Centre for Esperantists around the turn of the century. Equally surrealist, but no less true, is Barnard’s meeting with Uncle Louis, who had the chance to shoot Hitler off his bike in World War I but was too humane to pull the
What makes Barnard consistently enthusiastic about his second fatherland is its melting pot of languages and cultures and the contradictions in behaviour and mentality which somehow peacefully coexist. This coexistence may be indicative of a strategy for survival which the area’s inhabitants have been forced to develop over the centuries. The author gives in to his essentially pro-Flemish character and belies his Dutch birth by endorsing such a muddled state of affairs. The result is a wonderful book that carries on from the highly-praised Het gat in de wereld and deserves to be read far beyond the Netherlands and Belgium.