Impressive and insistent
Tom Lanoye (born 1958) published the first part of an ambitious trilogy in 1997 Het goddelijke monster (The Divine Monster), aimed at establishing his reputation as a novelist besides the renown he already enjoyed as a columnist and playwright. In much the same way as Hugo Claus projected wartime and post-war Belgium in Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium, 1983) and Walter van den Broeck described the country for the benefit of King Boudewijn in Het beleg van Laken (1985-1992), Tom Lanoye has charted Belgium in the nineties.
The central theme is the degeneration of a large, important family that includes a Minister and a powerful carpet manufacturer, against a background of a country that is scarred by scandals and increasing discord among the population.
At the beginning of Lanoye’s trilogy, the daughter of the family, Katrien Deschryver, shoots her husband dead during a hunt, and the family fears that further research will reveal a number of sordid affairs. The unstable Katrien cannot come to terms with herself and also cannot fulfil the role expected of her. She is the weakest link in the family chain and she is the one who initiates the ensuing calamities.
In the third volume, Boze tongen, Katrien’s father is pursued by a relentless examining magistrate, her brother dies during a strangulation sex session, and her uncle is so overwhelmed by hopeless business intrigues that he opts for a very radical solution. Katrien mutilates herself horribly in a moment of despair, and this changes her life drastically. She finally finds peace of mind as a victim from whom nothing more can be expected.
In his book, Tom Lanoye continually refers to known reality. Those who followed Belgian news in the nineties will discern recognisable facts, such as the affair around Marc Dutroux, the kidnapper and murderer of children. Nevertheless, the trilogy is not a chronicle. Lanoye processes the notorious events in a new context with fictive characters, outlining the symbolic value and disclosing more hidden tendencies. The growing collection of dead characters who, released from all inhibitions, freely associate with one another and observe the wretched affairs of the living rather compassionately, receives special significance.
After the masterly apotheosis of Boze tongen, in which an enormous inferno accompanies a gigantic pile up on the nearby motorway, the reader is left with a penetrating image of a Belgium that appears to be undermined by a destructive attitude of opportunism and indifference, relish of power, and emotional shortcoming. It is a country that is at the mercy of irreversible moral decline, in which people are desperately seeking their true nature and identity. Just like Katrien, the country is hoping for catharsis to purify itself of the evil that is lurking everywhere. It is seeking a new bond with innocence and tranquillity. With this impressive epic, Tom Lanoye can assume a permanent place in the line of great Flemish novelists.