Saturday, March 26, 2011

Brussels--Into the Congo (on my 2010 visit to Belgium)


On the afternoon of June 3, 2010, the group of publishers with whom I was exploring Flemish literature were taken by bus to the small, but lovely town of Mechlin, where at the bookshop De Zondvloed we were fed wine, cheeses, sliced meats, and good bread. The bookstore was a large, two-storied place, with a reading occurring even as we dined, in another part of the building. One cannot imagine such a well-stocked busy bookstore in small town America, but Mechlin is midway between Antwerp and Brussels, and perhaps can depend on travelers scurrying between the two cities. It was certainly a perfect stop along our route.

After lunch, several authors, including Stefan Brjs, Rachida Lamrabet, Yves Petry, and Annelies Verbeke, spoke about their work, read short passages, and were interviewed (quite incapably, I felt) by the Flemish journalist Elke Vandersypen.
She sounded more like a provincial American journalist, without a clue of what a writer is and does.

We left Mechlin around 3:00 p.m. and continued to Brussels, where at the beautiful Grand Place we were given about an hour to simply tour alone or together. I chose the former, and quickly walked through the tourist-filled streets near the great square, indulging in some famed Belgium fries along the way, after clearly disappointing the chef by refusing any of the dozens of sauces provided in which to dip them. I've never like fries with sauces, but in Belgium it is almost a requirement, and clearly, etiquette demands it.

After finishing as many of the fries as I could, I sought out a bar, in this case a gay one, to get a drink and wash my hands. Although I personally liked all of the publishers, the fact that we had been compelled to be with each other for so many days, and that I was now completely surrounded by tourists who milled around the streets in large, laterally sliding gangs, made me seek out a place of silence where I might catch up on my daily diary and even, possibly, write. A gay bar at 3:30 in the afternoon would be as still as a tomb, I thought to myself. And, yes, it was quiet, perfectly delightful with only the bartender who might speak.

When I rejoined the group at a large restaurant nearby for coffee, Brussels waffles, and ice-cream, they asked me where I had been, and I told them. Some were confounded. How did you find a gay-bar? "Well," I paused, "it was called L'homo erectus! But I would have sniffed it out even if it had had a less ridiculous moniker. Gays know how to do that by habit." In truth, I hadn't been to a gay bar in decades and probably would never have discovered an appropriate place for such delicious silence in most cities, where gays and straights now drink together in what had formerly been exclusionary places.

Our guest at this high-caloric gala was the author David Van Reybrouck, whose Congo. Een geschiedenis (Congo: A History) some of us had perused at our publisher meetings a few days before. It was a hefty-looking, beautifully produced tome that had received raves in the Flemish press. David was a quite-charming and brilliant man, a philosopher and archeologist by training. He'd gone to the Congo to research this book, living there for a long period of time and befriending an ancient, but clearly entertaining man who had lived there as a child under Belgium rule. Van Reybrouck's history, beginning from a time before Stanley's arrival, brought his readers up-to-date with the country's current economic crises.

Van Reybrouck read a chapter, and discussed the book as a whole. But immediately after, I interrupted. "You know, David, this is clearly a marvelously brilliant work, but—and I say this with some hesitation—perhaps with the exception of Ascheoug and Luchterhand—you are trying to sell this book to the wrong people. I would love to publish such a book, but it would be a huge and very expensive undertaking, and we are all primarily literary publishers!"

Barbara Epler, from New Directions, agreed. "I was very honored, in fact, that the book was offered to us, but we are not your kind of publishers, and we could never do it properly. You need some university press, like Chicago or the University of California Press," she concluded.

"Or even a large commercial publisher," I added. "I don't see why a larger commercial publisher would not want to publish this book. It's looks to be wonderful!" Both of us and others suggested some publisher names and agents. And he seemed appreciative, if a little taken aback by our inabilities to take on such a title.

But the interchange made for a kind of momentarily intense relationship, and I couldn't help but to tell him about my childhood experiences at writing musicals in the basement. "When I was...I must of been 12 or 13...after I'd fallen in love with Broadway musicals, I attempted to write my own musicals in the basement of our house. We had a small piano there, and, although I couldn't really play it, I'd tap out tunes, and sing them and dance. Yes, it had to have been when I was 13 because it was 1960, the year of the Congo's independence from Belgium. I wrote a work entitled Rain on a Lonely Street, about a Midwestern family that had gone to the Congo as missionaries (I was big on missionaries as a child), and got caught up in the battles of February 1959. The father, a minister, was killed, and the mother and son had a difficult time in leaving Brazzaville, in part because they had no way to travel and also because they were committed to the people with whom they had so long lived. I still remember the major song, sung by the stranded son:

Rain on a lonely, lonely street
Will it never stop, this sleet.
The mud up to our knees, please
God, let it ease.

For me then, it was a great, romantic symphony. I now perceive it as a really ghastly piece. Why rain, and why was he so lonely? Perhaps because of the death of his father. But at the time, in my imagination, it represented a significant inter-cultural relationship.

Everybody laughed heartily. But Van Reybrouck was astounded. Had some young American Iowa boy really been so moved by the Congo and the events there that he had written of it way back then? "Yes, it seemed startlingly real to me, the news of the revolution and its aftermath. I must have read some place that missionaries had been stranded and murdered.

Soon after came the cakes and waffles and various ice creams and silence as we sat consuming them in delight.

I recently read that David's book has been accepted for publication by Ecco, a imprint of HarperCollins.

Again, we were given a bit of free time before we were to all meet up at the amazing Passa Porta bookshop. On the roof of the shop, we were served an excellent dinner, afterwards moving down into the large shop itself.

Passa Porta, much like its name, is a hub for international writing, serving not only as a seller of books but as a kind of literary center which provides grants, with the support of the Flemish government, to foreign artists to come and stay for periods of time near the bookstore, allowing them time to write and perform. Among the artists have been Richard Powers, Tod Wodicka, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, and Alan Cherchesov. It is, in short, the kind of bookstore that I would have had for Sun & Moon and my nonprofit Contemporary Arts Educational Project, accomplishing a mix of publishing, bookselling, and direct literary support. However, in the context of US funding, we could never achieve that.

On the evening of our attendance there were readings by four prose writers, Gie Bogaert, Elvis Peeters, Peter Terrin, and the intensely handsome Dimitri Verhoulst, and, also, two poets who I planned to publish in a Flemish poetry anthology I was preparing with help from the Flemish Literature Fund and their poet-expert, Tom Van de Voorde. Both of the poets, Paul Bogaert and Peter Holvoet-Hanssen, were wonderful writers. While Holvoet-Hanssen was more involved with a kind a loony narrative work, performing with puppets and objects, Bogaert was a more abstract maker of language, with hilariously funny tropes that were presented with a straight-face.

After the readings we drank quite late into the night, and I talked with enormous pleasure, primarily to the poets. We reached Antwerp long after midnight, all seeking out the rather low-life bar across the street from our hotel. After only two beers it became apparent that my now dear friend Barbara Epler was getting quite tipsy, and I offered to accompany her back to the hotel, the two of us staggering across the street, through the lobby. The clock in my room read 2:30 a.m.!

Los Angeles, March 25, 2011

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