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Monday, February 13, 2017

The Sorrow of Belgium (1983) by Hugo Claus

Book Review
The Sorrow of Belgium (1983)
by Hugo Claus

   It is both easy and accurate to describe The Sorrow of Belgium as a "Flemish  The Tin Drum."  Whether that description means anything depends on how familiar you are with the Flemish and The Tin Drum, respectively.  The Flemish are a Dutch speaking minority in the modern nation of Belgium, where the French speaking Walloons (and Flemish who emulate Walloons by speaking French) is dominant, and the Flemish, while not exactly oppressed, are not at the top of the pyramid.

  Thus, for Louis, the narrator, and son of a middle class Flemish household in the time before World War II, the rise of Hitler is viewed with excitement.  The Flemish were part of the greater Germanic nation (a group which also included the Eastern Germans of The Tin Drum) and they benefited from the German occupation, economically and socially.   The pro and anti German locals of the Flemish part of Belgium were known by the color of their shirts, Black shirts for pro, White for anti.  Louis, mirroring his family line, is pro-Germany, and he goes so far as to enroll (and then dis-enroll) in the local analogue of the Hitler Youth (called the VNV. )

  I didn't particularly enjoy reading a 700 page memoir from a Flemish Hitler Youth, but I suppose The Sorrow of Belgium is proof of the enduring appeal of the European realist novel well into the 20th century.  The Sorrow of Belgium wasn't even published in English until 1990 which brings the publication history almost up to present day.   Like The Tin Drum, there is insight to be had from those on the periphery of World War II- first of all, they weren't wiped out like the more affected groups, and second they maintained some distance from the center of the maelstrom created by Hitler and the National Socialist.

  It is interesting reading about how the local Dutch speaking Belgian minority debated the rise of National Socialism as it related to their own quasi-nationalist leanings.  Other than that, there is a limit, a personal limit, when it comes to pro-Nazi memoirs, even if narrated by children.

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