Colonial Wares

A carefully composed family chronicle

Joseph Pearce (b. 1951) debuted in 1999 with Land van belofte (The Promised Land), a remarkable novel chronicling a search for unknown family members spread round the world. Until his fourteenth birthday, Pearce was under the impression that he was the son of a British soldier who had married a Flemish girl in 1948. This was not exactly a lie, but neither was it the whole truth. In 1938, at fifteen, his father had emigrated from Germany to England. Some family members ended up in Palestine, China, Bolivia and Australia; others had been unable to escape from Germany in time. Werner Peritz changed his name to Pearce, took British nationality and started a new life. Twenty-five years after being stunned by the news of his origins, Joseph Pearce decided to search for his roots and the descendants of his Jewish forefathers.

His second book, Koloniale waren (Colonial Wares), is further removed from autobiography and is entirely different. It is set in the spring of 1964 in a suburb of Brussels, in the family of a wholesale grocer. The main character is thirteen-year-old Mathieu, but he is surrounded by a host of grandparents, uncles and aunts who together form a tight-knit clan. Mathieu and his sister realise that they are not as well off as their friends Arnaud and Aline, the children of a civil law notary, yet they do not go short. The multi-storey warehouse with its enormous piles of stock is both a source of plenty and an adventure playground. Mathieu’s mother is somewhat sickly. He, too, is sometimes ill and his schoolwork is suffering for some uncountable reason. Nothing sensational, however, actually happens in the book. The climax is the big family party and the days of preparation for the festive dinner to mark the occasion of the fair and the annual market.

This is, in fact, a carefully composed family chronicle, with unusual attention to detail and minor everyday events, giving an evocative picture of a middle-class family in the early 1960s, a well-organised family business in the middle of the industrial expansion of a suburb, a life with set habits in which nothing seems to change.

Nevertheless, minute changes occur that, although apparently leaving the daily flow of life more or less unaffected, leave you with the feeling that everything evolves whether we like it or not. After the independence of the Belgian Congo, the family feels it is in bad taste to continue talking about ‘colonial wares’ and has the sign changed to ‘wholesale grocers’. The familial organisation also has to be adjusted after the death of an uncle. But far subtler are the developments in Mathieu’s emotional life. A girl cousin stirs up unfamiliar feelings in him and the relationship with both Aline and Arnaud makes him emotionally uncertain. Behind the description of daily life, from which a highly recognisable and accurate portrait of an era emerges, Joseph Pearce succeeds in making tangible a gamut of emotions in the life of a boy in pleasantly secure circumstances for whom a number of great changes become apparent.

You have to give it to Koloniale waren for style, empathy and an unparalleled capacity for observation

NRC Handelsblad

The subtle narrative style of Koloniale waren makes it, first and foremost, a sensitive book, a wonderful portrait of the restlessness of a young adolescent.

De Standaard


Koloniale waren (2001). Fiction, 174 pages.
Copies sold: 2,000

Sample translation available from the publisher.


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