Between a comedy of errors and a Greek tragedy: again a satirical novel on present-day Flanders
Zwarte tranen is the second novel in a cycle which began with Lanoye’s Het goddelijke monster (1997). We don’t know yet how many more will follow, but whoever reads Zwarte tranen will eagerly look forward to the next, largely because of the soap-like nature of the family dramas involved, set against the background of the scandals which have plagued Belgium for the last few years. As a columnist, Lanoye has always made his opinions abundantly clear, and he frequently takes upon himself the role of the intellectual conscience of Belgium. In this book Lanoye the columnist, the literary performer (with stress on fun in literature), the playwright (his magnificent Shakespeare rendering Ten oorlog) and the poet combine in an epic which also tells a more personal tale.
The central character is Katrien Deschryver who, as Het goddelijke monster, shoots her husband dead. Everything points to a hunting accident, but Katrien becomes a focal point for others’ longings and obsessions. Before long Katrien is arrested and charged with murder. The incident leads to an impressive chain of events as Katrien belongs to a family which moves in highly placed political and business circles in Belgium. Her ‘deed’ acts as a bombshell which threatens to blow up the lives not only of those directly involved, but of the whole of society. Katrien speaks to us mainly through diary entries, which are both obscure to the reader and a source of frustration for the examining magistrate, motivated by his own personal ambitions and hidden agenda. He seems to be searching for what he wants to find, not for what is actually written. Similarly, Katrien’s escape, which takes place at the beginning of Zwarte tranen, is not engineered by Katrien herself, but comes about more as a result of an accidental combination of factors, whereby Katrien is swept along in the wake of a militant feminist who subsequently makes her an icon for her own obsessions.
Lanoye’s cycle of novels steers a middle course between a comedy of errors and a Greek tragedy, where wilfulness and misunderstanding, blindness in the face of reality and impulsiveness all have fateful consequences. Each character has his own story, but each story rests on quicksand, fragile ground where people believe themselves safe, but which collapses at the slightest tremor: real substance of identity is lacking. Much of the power of Zwarte tranen lies in the perfect alternation of speed and slowness of movement in the narrative. As we read we have the impression of being swept along at speed from one event to the next, but in fact the book consists of a large number of almost static situations in which time barely passes: we remain for several pages in a hotel room in which a colonel commits suicide; we wait forever for a lift, we sail endlessly on a cruiseship. All the events and descriptions lead us to a single point, with which the reader feels an urge to identify more and more.