A brilliantly written moral sketch
Dimitri Verhulst enjoys writing about his own background, and from a certain cynical remoteness. In Dinsdagland (Tuesday Land), published in 2004, he collected reports on typically Belgian places and popular features. In his novel De helaasheid der dingen (The Misfortunates), he flings the gates to his youth wide open.
The main character is a boy in a dysfunctional family in a forgotten village. His mother, who never cherished her son after a difficult birth, has abandoned her husband and child, and the son now lives with his father and three uncles in his grandmother’s home. They are ill-mannered and coarse, volatile and uncontrollable. Wallowing at the bottom of the social ladder, they make a total mess of their lives.
Verhulst writes about this life with its high-spirited anarchy in comic episodes and images: blow-outs in the pub, the Roy Orbison cult, shameless womanizing. When an official from the Special Youth Care Department comes to inspect the boy’s living conditions, she’s seen as a cheap pick-up. The family seems happy to accept their isolated, bleak lot – although the father does feel a certain lack. He decides to go away to dry out, but when he returns home three months later, his previously ingrained habits overcome his good intentions. Only the son eventually manages to distance himself from this life, not without a degree of emotional pain and melancholy.
Dimitri Verhulst carries the reader into a world without shame or manners, a world of alienation and social deprivation, and he succeeds astonishingly in maintaining a delicate equilibrium. Whereas, on the one hand, he succumbs to comic exaggeration in writing about inept people, on the other hand, dependence and sympathy alternate in a subtly emotional counterweight. De helaasheid der dingen forms a new peak in the work of Dimitri Verhulst, earning comparisons to the work of Irish novelist Roddy Doyle.