#brusselsbookcity — Nedim Gürsel: Hôtel du Grand Miroir

Nedim Gürsel
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Turkish author Nedim Gürsel (1952) was Passa Porta’s very first writer in residence when the house of literature opened its doors in October 2004. During his stay in Brussels, he worked on the collection of travel stories Ízler ve gölgeler (De ville en ville, 2007), which opens with a piece on Brussels. What follows is the short essay he sent us as a souvenir.

Brussels for me had always just been a quick stopover on the way to Amsterdam or Bruges, until I took up residence for two weeks in the small apartment that the literary organisation had lent me. I wouldn’t even call it a stopover, as I was only familiar with the train stations. Cleaving the city in half, the railway leading to these stations is the oldest in Europe, the construction of which wiped out all of the old buildings and destroyed the historic architectural ambience of the area. From the train window, I watch the red-brick homes hunched shoulder to shoulder and buildings built of cold stone blur past beneath lead-grey skies. Now I am in Brussels, sitting alone in a café called La Morte Subite – ‘Sudden Death’. To top it off, the beer I am drinking is called Malheur – ‘Unhappiness’. The fact that this is one of the oldest cafés in Brussels sends my mind wandering into the past. This city used to be where the road ended, tumbling into a world populated by suffering drunken poets bent under the weight of loneliness. But before delving into such reminiscing, I had spent the day visiting the museums. I stood for a long time enthralled before Bruegel’s painting The Fall of Icarus.

After being rescued from the labyrinth, Icarus flew up towards the sun with his father, unaware that this would be the last time he would see the world, the mountains and the valleys, and that he would never again feel the cool of water, the texture of soil, the heat of flame and the warmth of the sun. And that’s why, flapping the wings sealed to his body with wax, he streaked upwards into the sky as far as he could go. Dizzied by neither the rush of freedom nor the hard glint of the sun, he became obsessed, overtaken by the urge to go ever higher, even if just for a moment. His father had warned him that if he flew too low, the moisture in the air would sodden his wings, turning them into dead weight, and if he flew too high, the heat of the sun would melt the wings from his body and sear them away. As if it were in our nature to not crave new heights once we had tasted flight, as if one could be content with finding the happy medium while soaring in the sky’s blue expanse.

As a plough furrowed the soft, greasy soil and a ship back from a long journey dragged anchor in the bay, Icarus plunged into the sea. The fisherman on the shore didn’t see him plummet. The scarlet-eyed partridge taking perch on a dry branch didn’t notice either. As for the shepherd pasturing his sheep on the slope of a hill, he was lost in thought, gazing at a barely visible speck in the sky while his dog, crouching at the foot of the stick the shepherd leaned on, was busy scrutinising the trees. As the sun set into the fissure between the bluish-white mountains in the distance, a different ship was leaving port. It was as if the city, with its red-roofed white houses bathed in the unreal, matte glow of the setting sun, was straight from a fairy-tale. Neither the villager, so lustfully grasping the handle of the plough, nor the seamen from the ship pulling into harbour, saw Icarus. He struggled in the waves, in that place where the indigo blue of the sea churns to sea-grass green, scrambling to reach the rocky shore just a little ahead. It appears that there was neither a branch to clutch onto nor a helping hand reaching out to pull him in. As the feathers from his wings fluttered in the air, death pulled Icarus deep into itself, like a cold sea. That scenario still writhes there, on the wall of the museum in Brussels. It is much like Baudelaire, who spent two years in this city. Spewing forth his bilious contempt for Belgium and the Belgians, he then went on to spend the last few months of his life in the Le Grand Miroir hotel just a little down the road.

It was probably the back-to-back beers I had drunk (after the Malheur I moved on to the house draught Mort Subite) that made me think of two lines from a poem by Can Yücel: “In the midst of the clamour and tumult / One man’s life was squandered for naught.” And it is not just the Icarus in Bruegel’s painting I am thinking of, it is those genius poets of France in the nineteenth century who came and squandered their lives in Brussels. Baudelaire! He arrived on the 24th of April in 1864, having planned a two-week stay here for a change of scenery (and to give the slip to some debt collectors) – and he ended up staying for two years. I can imagine him in his room at Le Grand Miroir, wracked by loneliness without once ever looking in the mirror; even though he was only 42, he had aged quickly, his grizzled hair falling out in tufts as syphilis ravaged his brain. Within a few months, a stroke would tear through his body, leaving him stiff as stone. There would be no weeping mourners when he died. The passionate affair between Rimbaud and Verlaine was also destined for a night in this town, after the writer of A Season in Hell was shot at twice on an alcohol-frenzied, ill-starred night for which the perpetrator Verlaine was tossed in jail. Nerval had ventured here as well, chasing down Jenny Colon, an actress he had fallen in love with, before hanging himself from a streetlamp in Paris. Dawdling now as I am at La Mort Subite, it strikes me that it is not the bureaucrats of Europe who stroll the streets of Brussels, but rather the damned souls of poets.

I now better understand why this city was once an extraordinary centre for painting. Brussels can surprise you, as much as light falling on a Magritte painting from an unexpected angle, an otherworldly image or the shop windows in the Northern Arcade. A little way down from the place I am staying, the right wall of the Church of Saint-Catherine marks the boundary of a large square area which used to be the quay, and is still known as such. But the quay is gone, and barge teams no longer make the journey all the way up the Senne to tie off and unload their cargo. What Baudelaire described as a waterway which ‘didn’t reflect even the most miniscule ray of light’ was swallowed up by Brussels in the nineteenth century. Once while on a trip through Spain I found myself in Valencia, and wondering at how the bed of the river, which cut through the town, was altered because it continually flooded, I wrote a piece called ‘The City of the Lost River’. But now, in Brussels, for the first time I was confronted by a city that truly had irrevocably buried and destroyed its river. When Baudelaire wrote, ‘The desolation of a city without a river... The hideousness of the paving stones... The fronts of the homes are decked with balconies, but there is never a soul to be found,’ I have to take his side. But still, the thing that really surprises me is that this lost river, drained and buried beneath the city, is called the Senne — even though the spelling is different, the pronunciation is identical to the Seine, that famed river which makes Paris the city it is. I guess it was never destined for eternity.

And then there is this thing about doing ‘number one’ that caught me by surprise. Up against a wall that faces onto the area surrounding the church is an open-air toilet reserved just for men, that I would like to mention; actually, it is more the incongruence of this pissoir that caught my attention. In my opinion, this place is, in the words of the surrealists, a case in point of saugrenu — that is, utter preposterousness. There is this convenience which consists of a green-painted divider mottled here and there with rust which everyone squeezes behind and, I kid you not, then pees straight onto the church wall. Off to the side there is this fountain, replete with dragons squirting water from their gullets, and opposite that repose the city’s finest dining establishments.

The neighbourhood locals’ curiosity about urination doesn’t stop there. On the corner where Rue des Chartreux intersects with the Vieux Marché aux Grains, past the cafés with those good old marble-topped tables, the menacing edifice emerges to stand in your path: a small sculpture of a dog, perched on the corner. This cute dog stands with its hind leg lifted, taking an eternal leak on the curb. In this Brussels bustling with European diplomats, immigrant labourers, groups of Japanese tourists idling in line at the Leonidas and crowds of people traipsing down to the Grand’ Place (all of whom, though they may not be aware of it, share the same trepidation or the same indifference as they cross from street to street or jaunt over to a café terrace from a tramway stop) — in this Brussels, such surprises are possible, surprises which not everyone notices.

Note that I didn’t say objects of beauty — I said surprises. I could have said: in this city, traces of the ‘surreal’ have been around ever since the time of Lautréamont (and, didn’t he die young as well, leaving behind a mysterious body of work baffling scholars down to the present day?); or, to put it more bluntly, I could have said, ‘Areas for Urinal Release.’ Let’s see what other surprises this city has up her sleeve for me. It's not for nothing that the saying goes, ‘We learn by living.’ I’d like to append to that, ‘And travelling.’

Translated from Turkish by Mark Wyers
© Nedim Gürsel, Mark Wyers and Passa Porta, 2004
Nedim Gürsel