A Sensitive Boy
A very smooth, elegant description of his childhood
In Een lichtgevoelige jongen (A Sensitive Boy) Walter van den Broeck once more returns to the Olen of his childhood. The setting is a blazing hot summer’s day in 1953, when everything is on the point of change, both in the life of the young Stijn and in the distant outside world, where the war in Korea is threatening to blow up into a new world war.
In the morning, Stijn goes to school with his sister, in the afternoon they and other children cross the canal, to where people seem so different, to watch military manoeuvres. Stijn also hopes to meet his girlfriend there. Initially, they make friends with the infantrymen loafing round there, but casual contact turns into teasing and escalates into a series of personal dramas. The future, which had seemed so bright and full of promise, now becomes full of portent. The children are brutally and humiliatingly initiated into the violent, emotionally destructive world of the adults.
Stijn has brought his camera, which is given an especially symbolic meaning in the story. The images that he photographs will be imprinted on his memory for ever, and they are by evening already leading him to an appalling conclusion: ‘behind the visible sphere is a hidden dimension, which, though apparent to no one, rules the world cruelly and without mercy.’ At that same moment, within the boy the writer is born; one who is aware of the dangers menacing mankind from all sides, who sets himself amongst his great predecessors: writers who have reduced the chaotic world to intelligible stories, to mirrors in which the invisible is made visible for the reader, instruments by which the reader gains insight, tools with which he can brace himself for impending danger.
Even though an entire vision of the world and a personal artistic credo is worked into this very smooth, accessible story, Walter van den Broeck brings them across subtly. His unmistakable social commitment as a writer, he demonstrated quite consciously in all his work, is most strongly expressed not by idealising the people of his youth but by his heart-warming solidarity with them, his involvement in their lives and in the shards of their dreams and expectations.