Louis Paul Boon (1912-1979) started life as a house painter but went on to become the author of a large and rich oeuvre which spans several genres. His work ranges from the compelling historical epics he composed later in his life to his sharp, witty work as a newspaper columnist and his tongue-in-cheek scabrous novels. Despite the merits of all these works, there is one book that stands out above the rest: Chapel Road.
In retrospect, this novel is a showcase for all Boon’s qualities. It unites his historical interests with his tendency towards short fierce fragments, and even salacious elements are present. As in so much of the work of this Flemish master, a major theme of Chapel Road is the ultimate failure of the fine socialist ideals which informed countless efforts to improve the position of ‘ordinary’ workers over the last hundred-and-fifty years. The novel is set in a period of growing social unrest and tells the story of Ondine, who was born in a poverty-stricken house in Chapel Road just before the turn of the century. Despite her origins she has set her sights on a rich and sophisticated existence but ends up marrying Oscar who is poor but idealistic. Inevitably both become disillusioned by the realities of life.
Within this story Boon interweaves the commentary and experiences of a number of modern people, ‘modern’ here meaning the post-War era, a time when socialist concepts made way for bitterness about the increasingly middle-class mentality which accompanied heightened levels of prosperity. Although the book is more than forty years old, Boon’s inimitably skilful style gives it a contemporary feel. His editing techniques move the reader effortlessly back and forth through time and his very personal mixture of literary and popular language adds variety. Humour and passion are the typical qualities of this author whose message that little men are better off distancing themselves from political systems and splendid-sounding slogans may be more applicable today than we like to think. Although Chapel Road’s ending is gloomy and gives little hope for the characters or their creator, the fire with which the story has been told still gives off a fierce glow.