The Working Class Boy And The Cursed Poet

Picture this, a lonely and melancholic 17-year-old boy in 1970, living in a small Flemish/Belgian farmers’ village, surrounded by vast pine woods, at the border with The Netherlands.

Later in his life, that boy will learn the hard way that border places are often rough and dangerous places,  but now, he’s searching for something that will appease a shapeless longing in him.  His parents,  poor and hard working people,  want him to become a postman.  Regular job, steady income, smooth life. Healthy too: each day, the postmen in this region bike many miles in the flatlands of De Kempen, that Flemish region of small farmers and workers in Antwerp’s harbor, distributing letters, written in the gnarly handwriting of simple people.

 Life is tough. Don’t go out late. Work hard. Don’t catch a cold. Don’t drink. Work hard. Search for a wife. Build a house. Work hard. Have children. Work hard.

  That’s what simple people write in letters to each other. That’s what his parents said to him.

The boy is a dreamer and likes to read. No good spills forth from this laziness. He needs some character.  He’s skinny; let him do some real men’s work.

So, the boy did some real men’s work in Antwerp’s harbor.  He steeled his muscles in the holds of ships filled with Rhine sand.  But his dreamy and sad nature didn’t evaporate in the sand.  He continued his reading after dark in bed with a flashlight.

The village sported a small but well-kept library, and there the boy found, by chance, by accident, by Fate, Den Bloemen van den Booze, a translation in archaic Dutch of Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire, whom the French like to call un poète maudit.

How his heart thrilled when he read The Flowers of Evil of this cursed poet!  Here was a twin soul speaking to him in delicate words and sublime rhythm.  Baudelaire evoked the unbearable weight of being human in a neurasthenic, hypersensitive language, rich and contrasting, vile, exquisitely beautiful.  The boy vowed to read the original poems, knowing that French was a more melodic language than his guttural Flemish, which is only a Dutch dialect.  The librarian, a retired schoolmaster with the reddest hair you ever saw, noticed the esthetic hunger burning in the clunky youth and promised him a copy in French of Les Fleurs du Mal. He held his promise and the boy spends many nights with the bundle and a French-Dutch dictionary.  The lines he read, scoured against his heart like the cracking of innumerable insect wings.

Sans cesse à mes cotés s’agite le Démon
Il nage autour de moi comme un air impalpable
Je l’avale et le sens qui brûle mon poumon
Et l’emplit d’un désir éternel et coupable.

A demon, lurking agitatedly in the depth of his being, surrounding him with an invisible cloak, and evoking an eternal and guilty desire that burns in his lungs.

Yes! That was what the boy felt. He was guilty of dreaming an impossible dream: becoming an author.

His parents said it couldn’t be done. They shook their heads: “Your dream is not for our kind of people.”   So, two years later, the boy left home with nothing but his hopes, starting a life that rambled from pillar to post, 12 crafts, 13 mishaps, eventually learning to publish novels by writing and discarding them, writing and discarding them, writing and discarding them, writing -.

No longer a boy, eventually, he became well known as a novelist in the Netherlands and Belgium, and his work was translated and published in nine languages.  But his unrest remained, whispering in the night, like Socrates’ Daimon. What, exactly, is a Man?

To search for the answer,  for thirteen years he author roamed the world as a travelling writer in mostly war-torn countries in an attempt to quench the fiery challenge in the demon’s question, learning the hard way that, as Baudelaire’s  verses had predicted, it was grief that was swirling around him like an impalpable mist. Grief for this wretched world, grief for the endless suffering mankind inflicts on itself.

In Somalia, Bosnia, Gaza, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Kosovo, Liberia, Mozambique, Burma, Burundi, and many other countries, he tried to analyze the eternal and guilty desire of the human race. In the end, he became confused and afraid, losing himself in nightmares.

He withdrew from the world and only spoke to his horses, mysterious creatures he had learned to love and respect, and to cherish. In their ancient ways, his steeds,  messengers of the gods in long forgotten times,  taught him that he had to witness all this suffering and violence in order to fulfill a promise the 17-year old boy with his flashlight underneath the blankets of his bed had vowed to himself:  I will write about the darkness in us, using somber and wretched and harsh parables of intricate passion and deceit; I will disclose the seeds of the Flowers of Evil that grow in every one of us.

Now,  picture this 65-year old author of 38 books, living in a tiny country – Belgium – at the other side of the Ocean,  with a life story that seems as surrealistic as Magritte’s paintings, still struggling to hold on to the inner fire he felt  48 years ago. Oh, he’s busy and successful all right, but sometimes, when mornings hover misty over his prairies and the forest around his house, he hears his beloved horses whinny, and  muses about his youth, remembering how  he was standing at the edge of the vast pine woods that surrounded his village, shouting  Baudelaire’s verses at the trees, which, unresponsively, absorbed  every syllable and every word, and wonders: was that truly me?

To know the answer, the writer has to listen to faint murmuring, deep in the darkness in himself, like the cracking of innumerable insect wings.

Sans cesse à mes cotés s’agite le Démon
Il nage autour de moi comme un air impalpable
Je l’avale et le sens qui brûle mon poumon
Et l’emplit d’un désir éternel et coupable.

This post is contributed as Guest post by Bob Van Laerhoven.

Van Laerhoven published 38 books in Holland and Belgium. His work is published in French, English, German, Slovenian, Italian, Polish, Russian, Swedish and Spanish. “Baudelaire’s Revenge” won the USA Best Book Award 2014 in the category “mystery/suspense”. “Return to Hiroshima” (2018) is his second novel in English translation.

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