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Pierre Mertens: Une paix royale [A Royal Peace]
On 9 October 1939, Hitler issued Führer-Anweisung N°6, which provided for the invasion of Belgium. On that same day, Pierre Raymond was born (as was Pierre Mertens). His parents gave up God and turned to communism. They later divorced. Pierre has become a travel guide. By his own admission, he is not a born travel guide, nor a particularly good one or a particularly keen one but it is what he does. He certainly does not take after his father, as the only time he saw his father travel was when he walked out on his family. He gives some wonderful descriptions of his travels in various parts of the world, mildly mocking the countries and certainly mocking the travellers he has to escort. He also writes a column about his travels for a magazine his travel company puts out. But now things are changing. He is becoming tired of travel, fearful of air travel and worried that it no longer holds any joys for him. Moreover, his marriage is not going too well, either. What he wants to do is focus on his own country, discovering and rediscovering Belgium. His boss is not impressed and persuades him to come on a Nile cruise. This is something he has done several times before but, as his boss says, never with me.
He ruminates on his early life, particularly his parents’ divorce. It seems that they were heading for divorce soon after their marriage, and well before he was conceived. Indeed, he says that his father made a habit of divorce and seemed to be better at divorce than marriage and may well have divorced more women than he married. This appears to be family trait, as his grandfather told his grandmother at a dance, between the waltz and polka, that he wanted a divorce. She willingly concurs. Pierre spends some of his childhood with her. His first sexual encounter was with the (female) lover of his mother’s (male) lover, whom he found in his bed, naked, when he returned home early one day. He remembers his schoolfriend, Alyosha, who offered to be his bodyguard in return for his pullovers. Pierre agrees and Alyosha introduces him to interesting books and prostitutes but is sadly expelled when caught reading a book called Eblouissements (but not this one but this one.) His own marriage is no more successful and he, too, ends up divorced (and also childless) before starting a relationship with Joy Strassberg, half English, half Austrian Jew, who had seen him give a talk on Austria and wanted to use him for one of her projects.
He gives a lot of thought to what he wants to do, partially as a tour guide but more specifically writing about in his columns in the publication his travel agency puts out for tourists. He picks on two items which for him and, probably for others, enshrine what is Belgium: the Belgian royal family and Belgian professional cyclists. Where this book might lose some foreign readers is his detailed thoughts on these two subjects. Knowing a bit but not very much at all, I found it fascinating, not least because his approach is not just a straightforward factual account of the two subjects but more the somewhat negative, occasionally critical approach he has adopted to this point about his own life and his travel guide experiences. He focuses more on Leopold III, though other kings, including his successor, Leopold’s son, Baudouin. There is a good reason for this, for the thirteen-year old Pierre had an encounter with these two. Pierre was out cycling, when a Ferrari came speeding round the corner and knocked him off his bike. He was unhurt. The driver got out and inquired about his health. On seeing that he was unhurt, he apologised, got back into the car and drove off. However, Pierre had recognised Leopold and Baudouin as the passengers. Only after they had driven off, did he realise that his bicycle was damaged. When he told his grandmother, with whom he was living at the time, she urged him to write to the palace claiming compensation. Reluctantly, he did so, receiving only an acknowledgement from a palace official and photos of both kings but no mention of the bicycle. The whole incident affected him so much that he abandoned his planned career as a professional cyclist.
He goes through the story of the Belgian monarchy, particularly that of Leopold III and his controversial actions during World War II. (This made the book somewhat controversial in Belgium, as he was not always flattering to the royal family.) The cyclists do not come out much better, as he also focuses, to some degree, on the negative, namely what happened to them after their careers, including depression and suicide. He even manages to interview Eddy Merckx, perhaps the most famous Belgian cyclist. However, his main focus appears to be on the royal family, particularly Leopold III’s troubled life. Pourquoi vous et moi avons-nous mieux réussi que Léopold et Édouard? [Why have you and I succeeded better than Leopold and Edward?], King George VI asks King Baudouin. Baudouin has no doubt about why – because neither he nor George VI were brought up to be king. Despite this, Raymond/Mertens makes it clear that Baudouin remained very much in his father’s shadow and was a very reluctant king.
Pierre has further meetings with the royals. He regularly speaks to Leopold (in his mind). However, one day while he is out, he is stopped by a man in a car and asked if he has seen a deer running along the road. He says that he has. He is asked if he will accompany them to find the deer, that has escaped from their estate, as they are worried about it having an accident with a school bus. They meet some of the gamekeepers, who says that they have had to shoot the deer. However, Pierre is invited back for tea. He has soon realised that the passenger in the car is none other than Lilian, Princess of Réthy, the widow and second wife of Leopold III. He tells her both about the incident with the bicycle but also his project to study the Belgian royal family. Initially, she is keen to help him and tells him stories (she is quite critical of her stepson, King Baudouin) and gives him access to documents, till he is suddenly cut off. Then, some time later, the King wishes to meet with representatives of the travel agency business and Pierre’s boss sends him, as the man most knowledgeable about the royal family. They talk about travel but also about the royal family, with Baudouin being very supportive of his father.
Interestingly, despite his deep interest in the royal family, Pierre says je ne suis pas monarchiste, si je ne suis pas devenu républicain [I am not monarchist while I have not become a republican]. However, he makes it clear that the story has generally been told by historians and it really needs to be told by a novelist and he is acting in that role, though the Princess’ secretary makes it clear that they do not think that he is the man for the job. The story, as such stories must, ends with a flood. Avec moi le Déluge, Pierre states as the water level rises. This really is a very fine and original novel, as Raymond explores his complex and not always easy childhood coupled with his view of his small country, with the focus on its royal family and its overachieving cyclists. Non-Belgians may find the detailed stories of Leopold III too much but I found it fascinating, though without knowing whether the gossipy bits were true, generally known rumour or simply made up by Mertens. However, the overall effect works very well indeed and Mertens tells his story superbly. Sadly, this book has not been translated into English and probably never will be, not least because it comes from a small country.
First published in 1995 by Éditions du Seuil
No English translation
Published in German as Ein Fahrrad, ein Königreich und der Rest der Welt by Aufbau-Verlag in 1996