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Category Archive for 'Belgium'

Author Nellie Hermann’s recreation of two years in the life of Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) breathes with Van Gogh’s earnest attempts to live a productive life while he is also burdened by crushing sadness and isolation. Depicting Van Gogh before he became an artist, she focuses on the years of 1879 and 1880, when Van Gogh was living in a coal mining village in the Borinage mining area of southwest Belgium, near the French border. The young twenty-seven-year-old son of a Dutch Reformed preacher had worked for several years in the Goupil & Cie gallery and its showrooms in the Hague, London, and Paris, before studying theology to become a minister and missionary, like his father. His letters to his younger brother Theo, used as resources by the author, provide intimate glimpses of his life in the Borinage, including the misery he shared with the miners and their families, which his own depression may have exacerbated. Throughout the novel Vincent’s own life develops in great detail, and readers interested in his biography will have plenty to keep them involved and intrigued here. His references to existing paintings that epitomize what he himself is seeing and to scenes which he himself eventually brings to life in his own paintings will please art historians. He puts so much heart into his actions, giving up everything he can from his own life so that the miners can benefit, that he becomes emotionally ill and spiritually at loose ends, and requires intervention from his father and family. A dramatic and insightful novel of a man whose sensitivity exceeded what his heart and mind could bear.

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Belgian author Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989), a prolific author, published two hundred novels and over one hundred fifty novellas during his long career, most of them involving mysteries of some sort. Though he is the author of the Inspector Maigret series, hugely successful in the film versions and TV series in addition to the novels, he was particularly proud of his much more serious novels, his “roman durs,” psychological novels in which he reveals his interest in how ordinary people deal with the many shocks and betrayals of their personal lives. Act of Passion, published in 1947, is one of these romans durs, a novel about which critic Roger Ebert has asked, “Why is there no sense at the end [of the novel] that justice has been done, or any faith that it can be done?…There are questions for which there are no answers. Act of Passion is essentially a question posing as an answer.” Ebert is not being coy. The main character here, a physician named Charles Alavoine, admits from the outset that he is guilty of premeditated murder, but he has had a good relationship with this magistrate, who investigated his story and interviewed the crime’s witnesses over the course of six weeks, and he feels that this magistrate, who is assigned only to investigate the case and not to try it, will understand him if he can only know about his life. If he can understand him, then Alavoine believes he will understand why he committed murder. A NYReviewClassic from 1947.

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Author Bernardo Atxaga, whose previous works have been set in his native Basque country in Spain, provides only basic information about the rule of King Leopold II and Belgium’s Force Publique in the Congo in 1903. Spending little time on the grand scale of the atrocities this group committed historically against the native population, he focuses instead on the behavior of the individual officers of one small garrison in Yangambi as they conduct their daily lives. This creates a unique narrative in which the author explores what happens when there are, essentially, no limits on what individuals may do to keep themselves entertained – life is truly a “jungle.” By creating Chrysostrome Liege, a young soldier who is both naïve and timid, Atxaga also creates scenes in which Chrysostrome’s reactions set the behaviors of the others into sharp relief. He has no sense of being part of the group and no apparent need to become part of it, and since he also has no feeling for irony or absurdity, even in circumstances in which the ironies and absurdities are patently obvious, the reader is alternately horrified by some of the officers’ activities and somewhat nonplussed by Chrysostrome’s apparent attitude of being above it all. As one of the officers notes, “I’ve no idea whether he’ll be a good soldier or a bad one, but he’ll certainly be a miserable one. As miserable as a mandrill.”

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Mario Vargas Llosa opens this fictionalized biography of Roger Casement as Casement’s awaits a decision on his application for clemency from a death sentence. As he reconstructs Casement’s life as a reformer and advocate for benighted native populations being exploited by various countries and corporations, he returns again and again to Casement throughout the novel as he rethinks every aspect of his life. Casement concludes, in most cases, that he acted honorably – or tried to. An advocate for indigenous populations exploited by governments and corporations, Casement has revealed the horrors of the Congo under the rule of Leopold II, and of Amazonia at the turn of the century, when a Peruvian entrepreneur controls vast quantities of land over which he had total control. His rubber company has many London investors. Ultimately, Casement believes that the Irish who are being ruled by the British have similar problems to indigenous populations, and he acts against the British and must face the consequences.

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Flemish author Patrick Conrad, who is also a poet, screenwriter, director, and painter, combines his varied talents in this lively and unusual novel of the silver screen, and fans of classic film, including Hollywood’s early black-and-white films, will be kept thoroughly entertained and engaged throughout. Several Antwerp deaths modeled after murders in classic films, or associated with the scandalous lives of Hollywood stars and directors, keep Chief Superintendent Fons Luyckx, known as The Sponge, and his assistant, Detective Inspector Lannoy, involved with all the gory details as they search for real clues to real murders while also searching for the cinema connections which might provide them with suggestions about the possible motivation of the killer or killers. At the heart of the mystery is Professor Victor Cox, who teaches the History of Cinema at the Institute of Film and Theatre Studies and whose wife Shelley vanishes one night, later found dead. The author keeps the tension high as the police (and the reader) try to figure out which famous films provide clues to the various deaths, only one of which is obvious. Original, filled with dark humor, and great fun to read (even for novices to classic film).

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