Hout en koper
A fascinating chronicle of three generations of Flemish family life
The narrator in Hout en koper once attended lectures given by a professor who was obsessed by ‘telling stories back to front, in retrospection, from the grave to the cradle, from the moment of death to the moment of conception.’ The professor strayed off ‘on the waves of his inspiration’, where finally a vividness of form and perspective emerged. This is exactly what Paul Verhuyck does in his latest novel.
Hout en koper recounts, back to front, the life of Gustaaf Lamfreit, from the day he dies to the day on which he is born. The novel acquires its originality from this unique, consistent style of writing. It is written in the second person singular, the ‘you’ form which speaks directly to the reader, an experimental form used in the past by such writers as Michel Butor and Martin Winckler.
In Hout en koper it is Gustaaf Lamfreit’s son who addresses himself, his family and the reader. We look back at the life of his father, which stretches over nearly the entire century. Starting off as a carpenter and cabinet-maker Lamfreit works up to become administrative assistant in a factory, at which point he is unable to move further up the social ladder. He pins all his hopes on his son (who, as failed architect, designs kitchens), and his daughter (who is a teacher but has people address her as professor). Lamfreit feels himself to be continually misunderstood, humiliated and unappreciated by the world around. He belittles his wife, ill-treats his son, is abusive towards his daughter, his neighbours and his in-laws. He sees radio, television and computers as pernicious modern-day influences, and wants nothing to do with them. In the end he succeeds in becoming chairman of ‘Acorns Become Trees’, a local ensemble of brass- and woodwinds, and finally acquires self-respect and a reason for living.
Hout en koper is not only a fascinating chronicle of three generations of Flemish family life, in which two world wars have played their part, it is also an oppressive caricature of the ‘pettiness’ of human nature in all its insufferable daily detail.