What are authors currently going through? For the Passa Porta Festival we asked seven writers from different countries to respond to this question with a new text. Their contributions have inspired us in compiling the festival programme.
French-speaking Belgian poet and writer Hubert Antoine (Namur, 1971) has been living in the Mexican city of Guadalajara for several decades now. In 2016, his novel Danse de la vie brève was awarded the Prix Rossel. His new book Les Formes d'un soupir (eds. Verticales) will be published in March 2021. The text he wrote for our festival, which you can read here in a translation by Daniella Shreir, helped inspire our programmes around the theme of Migrations and Belongings.
I’m Belgian but I don’t know what this means.
Membership to this country, whose land mass is little more than 10,000 square miles, doesn’t seem to signify a particular way of thinking, of living, or of being.
I’m tall, with brown hair and a strong nose. I have dark circles under my eyes and thirty-one teeth. My nationality can’t be read through my face. People have often thought I was Argentinian or Italian. Whenever I’m somewhat punctual, I could be mistaken for a German. My maternal grandfather was a French street urchin, while my paternal grandmother’s family came from both French and Flemish Flanders. Due to my parent’s marriage, which took place in the arctic cold of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, near to the University of Montréal, I also happen to possess a Canadian passport.
Apart from my identity card, there are no indicators that I was born in Namur 50 years ago, mostly likely on an overcast day. I haven’t got a tattoo of a Walloon rooster or a Liège waffle on my arm. I don’t particularly enjoy waterzooi stew or the rain. My accent is like homemade jam, best served over a piece of baguette and salted butter.
Being Belgian doesn’t even mean living in Belgium. Like one in twenty Belgians, I live outside the country and a fair way from Bruxelles-Central station (I’ve been living in Tequila, Mexico, for the past 25 years). Despite fulfilling my citizenly duties and voting in every election, I don’t pay Belgian taxes and employ an accountant who is much shrewder than me at diverting these figures into the columns of the United Mexican States’ ultra-complicated tax system.
I’m a writer and my ‘profession’ and place of birth are nearly always placed side by side. Hubert Antoine, Belgian poet and writer.
I don’t recall ever hearing our family butcher, Monsieur Challe, refer to himself as Walloon, just like our locally-sourced beef, as he handed over a chicken cold-pack to my mother every Sunday. Nor do I remember seeing the paediatrician I visited as a child, Dr Declerck, add a line under his prescriptions stating that he is French-speaking Flemish. Of course, there are numerous professions in which you’re obliged to assert your ties to a certain place. In one of my desk drawers I have a card from our Ambassador in Mexico City mentioning that His Excellency is Representante del Rey de los Bélgas. As diplomats works for the government, it makes sense that this government be specified.
But why must artists account for their origins? Does belonging to a troupe of acrobats put you under suspicion for vagrancy? On the road to fame, does the young star have to step onto the catwalk wearing a laurel wreath composed of the twigs from the nest into which they were hatched? Must fruit always bear the taste of its roots?
Artists show what they are or what they possess through their work and this goes far beyond their backgrounds or what they may have learned at school. They express their imagination, their experiences, their research, their influences, their speech, their madness, their authenticity through their creations. This is how artists reveal their sazón, as we say in Latin America when we want to express simultaneously a cook’s personal touch and their idiosyncratic way of doing things.
Some writers reject their origins, refusing to be tied to a particular place. Associating them with their place of birth might be read as an insult. If you go looking for the Swissman in Blaise Cendrars or the Namurois in Henri Michaux, you will be met with disgust or anger. These writers are globetrotters, volatile souls, loose cannons. In a more ambiguous way, Marguerite Yourcenar, née Cleenewerck de Crayencour, also had a strange way of relating to her heritage.
Their opposites abound: those who manage to draw a perfect outline around their childhood homes. The so-called "regional" writer is the very essence of the soil, the mouthpiece of the local farmer’s market, the vessel for the sounds and scents of the neighbourhood. These writers are as important as the postman who delivers the mail or the lone fox sighted around the neighbourhood. They have taken their quills from a goose wandering around local farmland and dipped it into the communal well that provides a daily deluge of inky inspiration.
These observant spirits tell the story of their countryside, the history of their streets, the psychology of the bar on the corner: their land. When he lived in Bra-sur-Lienne, near Lierneux, Jean-Pierre Otte divinely evoked the crossroads of the Ardennes with its oily mud and elegant spruces. Since moving to the Lot, in the south-west of France, he has told the story of the Causses du Quercy just as divinely, with its low flat-stone walls and stunted oaks.
There’s the faithful "mayonnaise" who will praise the flavour of local traditions and then there’s the "Brazil" sauce, inclined to join Jacques Brel on his way to the Marquesas Islands.
What’s the link between writers as different as Simon Leys, Lize Spit, Barbara Abel, Pierre Mertens, Anne François, Nicole Malinconi, Tom Lanoye and Myette Ronday?
Other than the fact they were born within sixty miles of each other? Can we recognise the hint of an accent, the whiff of fricadelle sausage on their breath, the sound of the burp emitted after one too many Trappist beers, in their texts?
While reviewing an edited draft of my first novel, Gallimard's proof-reader pointed out to me that the word ‘Cumulet’, meaning ‘somersault’, is a Belgianism. I had no idea. Instead, she recommended the infamous roulé-boulé –roly-poly – a lexical choice that I could only imagine in the mouth of a junkie explaining to me how to roll a joint. ‘Cumulet’ was much more elaborate, like the ass exposed to the sky in one of Brueghel’s paintings. But, of course, because of my provincial complex, I apologized for my mistake and thanked her for her vigilance.
There is a strong Belgian literary tradition: a seed of madness bursting with heightened modesty, a multiplicity that combines heaviness with lightness, strangeness with banality, light showers with pickle-flavoured crisps.
We could stretch a rope between the two bell towers linking Michel de Ghelderode and Charles de Coster without any hesitation. Who wouldn’t recognise something of Captain Archibald Haddock in Jean-Pierre Verheggen? Would the writing of Françoise Mallet-Joris exist without the writing of Suzanne Lilar? (We can even feel their complicity in their works). Did Marcel Moreau not take his darkness and stylistic depth directly from the slag heaps? Doesn't the laughter provoked by Thomas Gunzig's chronicles come directly from the masks of James Ensor’s paintings? Would Adeline Dieudonné have invented such an acidic atmosphere without the infamous Marc Dutroux? Ang what would I be without Achille Chavée, without Norge, without Henri Michaux?
But are all these authors and thousands more besides lassoed together and stuck in a Percheron’s corral because they all have this medieval, rogue, surrealist, comical, original, poetic aspect of style we ascribe to paper scrapers from the flat country?
The dozens of academic articles and analyses that support the existence of a Belgian literature haven’t really convinced me of a particular unity in style or content from between our four borders. But, as an exile, I don’t feel able or that I have the right to criticise these experts who are much more qualified than I am at describing the specificity of our nation’s authors.
Of course, I could never define myself as a French writer either. I’m lacking the requisite depression, the self-aggrandising mirror, the need to assert whether I’m on the left or the right, and the aggressive defence of one or other of these positions. Nor do I possess Cyrano’s stylistic haughtiness, have wine flowing through my veins, or the urge to bark whenever a fly hums.
But I couldn’t claim to be a Quebecois writer either, despite the fact I happen to share the nationality of the maple leaf flag. I don’t have the habit of saying câlice! whenever I stub my toe, of only being able to use half my vocabulary, of donning grizzly bear fur ten months a year, or of using a QWERTY keyboard while wearing mittens.
The great Mamamouchi of Belgian Letters, Amélie Nothomb, who exiled herself on a champagne bubble, spoke in a recent interview about her homeland, for which her father, himself an exile for work, served as an ambassador, saying: “I don’t really see what other country I might relate to.” The need to connect one’s untied umbilical cord to the land of one’s ancestors is the eternal anxiety of the emigrant.
We were almost 7,500 miles from the tiny geographical dot on which we’d both been born and the pleasure of recognising characteristics similar to my own in this fellow citizen was so great that I immediately made this thoroughbred exile my best friend.
Of course, the word nationality isn’t only used to obtain a passport, nor to recognise a compatriot under a Standard Liège supporter’s cap, nor to listen, at the bar, to the stereotypes associated with your fated territory, emblematised by jokes including: “What does a Belgian footballer so to his hairdresser?”
Must we be born between borders? Come on, they’re completely fictious! Who cares about the small dashes marked by geographers on maps! The dotted lines that separate nations remind me of the "animals that we eat" pages people used to cut out from cookbooks, in which a sketched animal is divided into segments, its noble parts separated from its lower parts. I’m reminded of the title of one of Alphonse Allais’s books:
There are plenty of stateless animals... The Irish Setter, for example: a wonderful red-coated pointing dog, easily crazed and daft as a dodo. This dog is said to be of Irish extraction, in the same way that Jesus is said to be Jewish and avocados Mexican.
Sometimes, I dream of being stripped of my nationality for serious misconduct: for having pierced one of Magritte’s enigmas, or for eating a packet of fries from Maison Antoine with a fork rather than my hands. With no official documents proving that I’m from a specific place, I would suddenly end up, like the refrain of the famous song, a writer without papers!
Better yet, I should like to have been born from two penguins in the Antarctic, a continent devoid of power. The son of two emperor penguins and my ass permanently frozen. I might finally know what it’s like to feel authentic.
A very honest Spanish-speaking poet, Antonio Machado – one of the Generation of '98 – wrote the following lines which express what I believe perfectly:
“You who walk, there is no path,
A path is made by walking”
Machado's verses are flawless and mean that our nationality is wherever the soles of our feet take us. The soles of our feet or "soles of the wind", as another poet who teased Charleroi and shot his lover in a hotel room in the capital put it. A more famous man, with long hair and round glasses, sang “Imagine there’s no countries”. You see? We all belong to the brotherhood of the stateless. Perhaps we could found a religion! That of the "Unearthed", the "No-land people", the "dogs who piss to expand their territories".
Oh, I don’t deny my luck at having been born in such a place. Let there be no confusion. I love where I grew up. Coming from Condroz is not a defect. I might even describe Natoye as a true paradise, with the castle that inspired cartoonist André Franquin to create Panade à Champignac and the Petit Bocq river which divides the village in two, laughing with its mischievous mousse. We lived across from the auto-cross track, next to a certain Monsieur Trompette's house. We grew rhubarb and wild strawberries in a large rectangular garden. With my brothers and sisters, we stole the neighbour's cherries as if we were blackbirds. Then there was Madame Gilberte who wore a wig and came to do the housework... But tell me, dear parishioners, doesn’t this paragraph sound a bit Pagnolesque, with a tender touch of the North?
What memories! I find myself pouring whatever I can find into the cocktail shaker of nostalgia… Is cold spaghetti with brown sugar for breakfast a specialty of the Province de Namur? I can no longer tell. Has fishing naked for tadpoles in a murky pond finally been declared a national sport? The resulting mix is signed by a poet who spent his early years in French-speaking Wallonia.
Belgium provided an incredible setting and harmonious conditions in which to grow. I grew up in a large, middle-class, loving family which worshipped books, scholarly disorder, travel, and friendship. My education was full and diverse thanks to patient, well-trained teachers. I could embark on whatever studies I wished but I chose distance as my learning, preferring tropical diarrhoea to sugary pies, opting to feed the amoebae in the aquarium of my adulthood with a pinch of mixed spices. By spending half of my life walking my balls more far away from those of the Atomium, I was able to embellish my Facebook profile with the face of an adventurer: a mix of Native American wisdom and general relativity. If anything, this is my greatest triumph.
I go back to Belgium whenever I can, where I stomp in puddles and gain pounds. I always exhibit the excitement of a tourist who knows all the good places.
When it comes to patriotism, I know nothing about national policy, am unable to name the parties that make up our government. From a cultural point of view, I’m still stuck in the golden age of Benoît Poelvoorde and Cécile de France; I still believe that the RWD Molenbeek is playing in first division; and I’ve forgot the colour of the river Lesse when it reaches Daverdisse.
In any case, I’m certain that the country that nurtured Philippe I is not the same as that of my writings, nor my habits, nor any of my references. It would be an insult to His Majesty to declare myself one of his subjects.
My language has become so unidiomatic, tackled to the ground by that of Juan Rulfo and Octavio Paz for over two decades, that I feel some remorse in declaring myself a French-speaking writer.
Yet that is still the most accurate description of who I am.
I’m Francophone, first and foremost.
The French language – that’s where I come from. My mother, mater, terroir: the jam of my culture.
Without it I would have no language, no original thoughts, no intelligence, no scholarship, no communication, no style.
Words are my family, the stuff with which I think and therefore all that I am. The dictionary is my god. The thousands of seeds that make up the Petit Robert are the sum of my worldly goods.
Paul Valéry once asserted that "we do not think in words; we think only in sentences". Oh how I love them, from capital letters to full stops, I kiss the stem of each letter as much as each of their syllables. The musicality of the sentence, in which each consonant enunciates the notes of harmony. The heavy sentence which brings man, whole, into himself; the light sentence which carries him away from the maze of existential questions. The perfect verse that will never erode; the sentence to be sucked up through the lips of thought; the scathing sentence that stops any pretence towards romanticism in its tracks; the bon mot loaded with three layers of innuendo; the dash that reads like being slapped; the pomp of the legal document, which exudes the swish of heavy black sleeves; the declaration of love that transforms your nasal passages into a gutter… Oh yes, my friends, you are my heart and soul.
This is what I designate my constituency. All that can be read, spoken or written. This.
With this army of words, I can conquer myself; invade the space where my imagination lies; define myself.
Hubert Antoine, French-speaking poet and writer, une fois.
Translated from the French by Daniella Shreir