Unfinished History

The confessions of a good murderer

Hugo Claus is not only the most famous and best read of Flemish authors, he is also the most prophetic. Shortly after publication of his previous novel, De geruchten (The Rumours), Belgium was in turmoil over a paedophile who imprisoned, abused and murdered young girls in his cellar. It was as if Claus had seen it all coming. De geruchten, set in the 1960s in a Flemish village, features a chorus of voices located in the ‘Under the Carpet’ bar where rumours surround the return of René Catrijsse, a deserter from the Belgian army in the Congo, who has brought a satanic virus home with him and it claims one victim after another.

In Onvoltooid verleden, which can be read as a sequel to De geruchten, Claus goes a step further. Set thirty years later, the novel consists entirely of a retired police commissioner’s interrogation of René Catrijsse’s brother Noël. Haltingly, Noël tells his sad and terrifying story. Ever since falling off his mother’s tandem and landing on his head as a boy, Noël has been a laughing stock. His colleagues at work call him Crazy Pollo but it soon becomes clear that despite his affliction, his mind is as sharp as a razor. In an unambiguous reference to the Dutroux affair, ?oël intercepts an envelope with nude photos of a young girl that was destined for his unpleasant, deceitful boss. But like all great literature, the whimsical style Claus uses to tell the rest of Noël’s story is anything but unambiguous.

Onvoltooid verleden skims the border of belief and astonishment when the amiable Noël reveals himself during questioning as a bloody avenger of evil. Crazy Pollo (a reference to the avenging Greek god Apollo) turns out to have been a killer. Convinced that he was in the right, he has claimed just as many victims as his brother did thirty years before. The game Claus plays with his readers in his latest book is as ominous as it is superior. He had good reason for choosing this sentence from De geruchten as the book’s motto: ‘I admit it’s not a pretty thing but you have to do something with your fellow man, tease him or screw him.’ With playful ease Claus switches the faces of good and evil. The truth is there is no one truth, and the past, no matter how horrific, is never really behind us.

It is a tightly constructed novel (…) Claus was able to apply his talent as playwright to the fullest in this dialogue for two men.

de Volkskrant

Onvoltooid verleden is a rich, sensual, and possibly prophetic book that you read in one sitting.

NRC Handelsblad

With a virtuoso’s touch, Claus the novelist skirts the abyss of topical events… such narrative élan… a wonderful, lyrical style.

Het Parool



Onvoltooid verleden (1998). Fiction, 176 pages.
Copies sold: 48,000


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