Patrick Roegiers: Le Bonheur des Belges [The Happiness of the Belgians]
Monty Python once did a sketch mocking the Belgians. The basis of the sketch was that there was really nothing much to them, so much so that there was no obvious insult for them. This is somewhat unfair but clearly Patrick Roegiers is not unaware of this issue. Despite its small size, Belgium does have an interesting literature. Though I only have six Belgian authors on my site (seven with this one), there are quite a few Belgian authors I hope to get around to reading. One of the best Belgian novels is Hugo Claus‘ Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium), a novel about hypocrisy in Belgium. (Claus is a character in one the chapters of this book.) Roegiers, writing his novel during a period of acute political crisis, is consciously writing a riposte to Claus, showing that Belgium is generally a good place, with an interesting history and many people who have made contributions to the world.
The book is divided into nine chapters – to correspond, as Roegiers tells us later, with the nine provinces of Belgium and the nine spheres on the Atomium. Each chapter features a key event in Belgian history and/or a story (or stories) about some event in Belgian history. The main character is an eleven year old boy. He has no parents and no name. It is not that he has forgotten them or the narrator has omitted them. He tells us that he does have a name or parents. Indeed, with some of the female characters, he tries to find a mother substitute, starting with the first person he meets, the still-living Yolande Moreau. The boy travels not only around Belgium but around time, popping up throughout Belgian history. Invariably, he meets many famous Belgians and others associated with Belgium, though, I had heard of relatively few of them and, I imagine, even Belgians would not be familiar with all of them. However, Roegiers provides a helpful mini-biography of most of them at the back of the book. Most people from the English-speaking world could probably name relatively few famous Belgians – perhaps King Leopold and Georges Simenon – though fictitious characters, such as Tintin and Maigret feature, as do some people you might not be aware were Belgians, such as Django Reinhardt and Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone.
The boy’s adventures start with a historical event which took place in Belgium but in which Belgians were relatively minor participants – the Battle of Waterloo. He is accompanied by Victor Hugo, a Frenchman, not a Belgian, though he did spend some time in Belgium and even considered becoming a Belgian citizen. Hugo, the boy and Roegiers look at various aspects of the Battle, including the number and nature of the wounds (he includes the famous story of Lord Uxbridge’s leg), the subsequent commercialisation of the Battle and films about the Battle. However, from the Belgian perspective, there are two interesting points. The first is that Belgians fought on both sides at the Battle. The second is that, had Napoleon won, Belgium would almost certainly have become part of France. Chapter 2 moves to the Belgian Revolutionof 1830, which led to the creation of Belgium, though we start with a big festivity at the La Monnaie theatre, featuring famous Belgian performers, in particular Jacques Brel (no, he’s not French), who sings Le Plat Pays, which Roegiers said should be the Belgian national anthem (though we also get a lot about the Brabançonne, which is the actual national anthem of Belgium). It also gives Roegiers a chance to have a dig at the Dutch. Chapter 3 is the WorldExpo of 1958, which gave us the Atomium and put Belgium (sort of) on the map.
The remaining chapters cover such topics as bicycle racing, World War I (our boy narrator is killed towards the end but revives later), language (both Flemish-French issues and how Belgian French differs from French French), Flemish-Walloon hostilities, art and death). However, despite each chapter having a nominal main subject, a whole host of characters, living and dead, real and (occasionally) fictitious, pop up to make comments or for Roegiers to make comments on Belgium. There are well-known ones like Brel and Pieter Brueghel but less well-known ones like Marcel Dutroux and Hendrik Conscience. Roegiers generally explains who they are so, for non-Belgians, it is not too hard to follow, even if he does give long lists (e.g. of Belgian inventors). Much of it is done tongue in cheek, with Roegiers not afraid to mock Walloon Belgians and Flemish Belgians and living Belgians and great Belgians and also Belgium’s neighbours (How often does it rain in England? Oh, about 400 days a year.) It is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable work which clearly required considerable research but also must have given Roegiers great pleasure in the writing. Sadly, I am not sure whether this book will be translated into English, not least because part of its strength is the use of Belgicisms and plays on words, not only in French but between French and Flemish. However, if you do read French, this is a book that you cannot help but enjoy.
First published in 2012 by Grasset
No English translation