The unresolved past of Belgium’s colonial struggles
‘The road to civilisation has not been all that long,’ said Hugo Claus on the publication of his new novel, ‘and corruption is an everyday reality here. That makes it all the more striking when there is a real explosion.’ Such an unwelcome disruption of the existing order is the theme of De geruchten. The book is set in the mid-1960s. René Catrijsse, a man in his twenties who fought in the Belgian Congo before deserting from the army, returns to his home village of Alegem in West Flanders. He is on his last legs and has a badly wounded back.
No one is particularly pleased at the return of the sick prodigal son. Alegem is a stifling, closed society of corrupt souls. By his very presence the young man, who has witnessed and committed atrocities in Africa, and has learned how narrow the divide is between civilisation and savagery, disrupts the apparent order. The disturbance he causes manifests itself in a deadly epidemic that sweeps through Alegem, and in a series of fatal accidents. The death toll soon begins to mount, and it is not difficult to guess who gets the blame.
The cesspit opens up as a series of disasters strikes. Claus associates this theme, which is a characteristic one in his work, with the unresolved past, in this case the colonial struggles in the Congo. And since the deserter René was fathered by a Flemish Obergruppenführer in a German field hospital at the end of the Second World War, the writer is creating a link with that past too.
All this is presented by Claus in a playful style, as though we were witnessing not a dramatic allegory but a juicy village chronicle. The novel consists of a number of short chapters, which usually take their title from the character followed in the next fragment. We are introduced to the whole community, including the alcoholic priest Lamantijn, who one fateful day falls to his death from the pulpit, the postman who pays dearly for his passion for young girls, and a seedy concierge, whose head is plunged into a vat of hydrochloric acid. In contrast Claus deals very mildly with René’s brother Noël, who suffered severe concussion in a tandem accident long ago and who has no need to hide anything because his memory has been devastated. As if in a modern version of The Beauty and the Beast, he has an affair with a beautiful woman. Here Claus’s compassion for his battered fellow-man breaks through all the mockery.