Growing up in public – documentary, narrative and portrait of an era all in one
Kristien Hemmerechts based De kinderen van Arthur on the English documentary 7Up, in which the current lives and future expectations of a group of people are portrayed every seven years, creating an intriguing picture of their development. In her novel, Hemmerechts describes the Flemish counterpart of the British series, 7-plus, which traces the lives of ten children from very different backgrounds who were all born in 1957. The result is a kaleidoscopic portrait of Belgian society.
The reader is introduced to Dora, daughter of a famous children’s author and a pianist. Less fortunate is Victor, a seven-year old boy who lives with his prostitute mother in a public lavatory. He has to solicit clients for her. Other children in the television programme include the disabled girl, Mieke, the working class kid, Guido, the black boy, Désiré and bilingual Alex. All and all, it is a very motley crew, but a true reflection of the complexity of Belgian society.
Still, Hemmerechts wants to do more than create either a sociological portrait or a mosaic of chance. It is no coincidence that the programme’s producer, Arthur Goemare, is allocated a major role in the three snapshots in time. As the connecting factor in the stories, he becomes increasingly involved with ‘his’ children. The fate of the less fortunate children, in particular, worries him deeply. The children, on the other hand, respond by placing Arthur on a pedestal, seeing him as an almost Godlike father figure.
This interaction between the producer and the children is what makes Hemmerechts’s novel so fascinating. To what degree does the children’s participation in a television programme determine the course of their lives? Should Arthur intervene when the lives of some of the participants are in danger of being devastated? Wouldn’t that jeopardise the objectivity of his programme? The variety of themes and the skilfulness with which Hemmerechts interweaves the stories makes De kinderen van Arthur an extremely multifaceted novel–a documentary, a narrative and a portrait of an era all in one.