Apocalyptic narrative of decline
De ontelbaren (‘The Uncountables’) is a novel which brings to life the consequences of the warped relationship between poor and rich countries, in this case a Europe languishing in its wealth, and which brings home the possible consequences of an unstoppable stream of refugees.
The book opens with a refugee trying to enter Europe after a boat crossing. The perspective then switches to the inhabitants of a sleepy, homely Flemish village who, one morning, wake up to find refugees sheltering on their porches and in their garden sheds. The stream of refugees swells to a flood and brings huge problems with it. Where are the newcomers to be housed? How are they to be fed? Slowly, quietly, the refugees take over all available space.
The various local authorities are powerless, their social structures inadequate to the demands of so many refugees. Normal life grinds to a halt, social amenities are disrupted, life reverts to the primitive. The concept of property is threatened: shouldn’t the dispossessed be entitled to just a modest share of abundance? It is every man for himself. First the villagers resist by screening themselves off and organising security patrols, then misunderstandings increase till desperate, bloody conflict results. In the last chapter, after a dramatic finale, the author returns to the perspective of the one refugee from the beginning, to conclude the story.
Peeters makes it clear that this invasion of refugees is going on everywhere in the West, and he questions our Western assumptions of abundance and comfort. De ontelbaren shows that a continued refusal to recognise the problem will only make the consequences both more unpredictable and inconceivable. The novel engages with an all-too-real problem in a strongly allegorical novel which confronts the reader with his own existence.