An Even-Handed Approach to Describing Belgium

Time to consider the portrait of Belgium presented in the Danish newspaper Politiken’s “Europa XL” series of cultural treatments of EU member nations, as submitted by respected literary figures of each such nation. The writer in charge for Belgium is the Belgian fiction-writer and translator Paul Claes – or rather, the Flemish fiction-writer and translator, i.e. one who writes in and translates into Dutch and so not into the French language spoken by around half of his countrymen, mostly in the south of the country. And I’m afraid that we start off on the wrong foot in our quest for impartiality and an even-handed cultural treatment, since Claes’ last-name is truly an ultra-Dutch one (in the sense of the language’s history). That “ae” vowel combination lying at that name’s heart, which merely signals the “long a” sound, is a relic from old Dutch spelling, used much more these days for Belgian names (both of people and places) than Dutch ones.

OK, off we go, but clearly we’ll inevitably have a different perspective than we have had for most of these portraits, namely what you could call the “Flemish-vs-Walloon scorecarding” view:

  • Painting: Christ’s Procession into Brussels, by James Ensor. Claes goes more-or-less for neutral ground here, as he actually takes the son of an Englishman (who lived 1860 to 1949; the painter-son, that is) and bravely terms him “the most Belgian of all painters.” But there’s no vote of confidence to be found here in any of Belgium’s common governmental institutions: Claes relates how this painting, after hanging on display for years at Antwerp’s Museum for Fine Arts, was permitted by the state to be sold by its owner and taken out of the country, with even et lettelsens suk – a sigh of relief! (He doesn’t explain why.)
  • Photograph: Joseph Plateau’s “phénakistiscope. The emphasis here is not so much on a photograph but on a process, namely the proto-movie technology developed by Plateau in 1832 of taking slightly-different pictures and viewing them one after the other at high speed to show a moving effect. So that was even before the development of cinematographic techniques in France by the Lumière brothers.
  • Person: Whoa – it’s Tintin, not a person at all but a cartoon character! Claes’ reasons for this selection are particularly eloquent: “The Belgian [person] doesn’t exist. He is either a Brusseler, Wallon, Fleming, or a German from the east cantons. In reality he exists only on paper: in his identity card or on a land-map of Europe. The most typical Belgians are therefore also on paper: Agatha Christi’s Monsieur Poirot or Hergé’s Tintin.” And even Tintin, Claes notes, prefers to go have his adventures elsewhere other than in Belgium.
  • Object: The “Atomium” in Brussels. This is the giant structure built for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, which represents the structure of an ice crystal enlarged 150 billion times. It also used to represent, with its nine interconnected atoms, the nine Belgian provinces, but now there are ten such provinces, bound in a federal structure that wasn’t in place back in 1958. Perhaps, Claes suggests, the Atomium can come to represent the EU – not nine elements, but nonetheless bound together by economic strength to overcome each element’s natural centrifugal force.
  • Text: Language, or as a text simply “européen [“European” in French], europeaan [in Dutch/Flemish], and europäer [German].” “Belgium is the only EU member which has three primary languages,” Claes notes, so that “[e]very Belgian is a stranger in his own language,” since the Wallons spice up (Danish spækker) their French with Dutch, the Flemings their Dutch with French, etc. Hmm . . . I don’t know whether that is exactly true, or whether everyone just stays exclusively within his/her own language to the greatest extent possible.
  • Song: This Flat Land, by Jacques Brel. Yes, Jacques Brel was Belgian – actually, from Brussels, with “Flemish roots” – and not French. And, although later in his life he tried to deny his Belgian nationality, Claes is still willing to credit the artistry of this song, which after all ends with the verse “This flat land, which is mine.”
  • Poem: “West Flanders, Tancredo infrasonic,” by Hugo Claus. With text following – but translated into Danish. Claes notes that Claus is “more popular in Holland than in Belgium,” and it is worthy of note that this poem was actually published in Amsterdam in 1952.
  • Food-dish: Mussels with french fries. There we go! French fries are certainly Belgium’s main culinary contribution to the world (although Belgian beers are also deservedly famous). The emphasis is on them here in this entry, both in the picture and the accompanying explanation; Claes merely recommends having your fries with some mussels.
  • Place: The Grote Markt/Grande Place in Brussels. Claes remains very politically correct here in giving both the Dutch and the French names to the historical main market-square in Brussels, but just try visiting Brussels: you’ll find that that’s precisely required everywhere in that city, on everything, the Dutch and the French, on every name, every label. Anyway, his focus is more on Brussels the city per se than its main square, Brussels as capital of the EU, headquarters for NATO, and aspiring capital for Europe generally.
  • Event: The division of Charlemagne’s empire at Verdun in 843. Yes, that’s the origin of all the trouble Belgium had to put up with, from its founding in 1830 (as it rebelled against rule by the Netherlands to become independent) through the two world wars of the 20th century. For this division-of-empire at Verdun divided things into three: a western part (France), an eastern part (Germany), and then the part in the middle which the first two parts would argue over during the next twelve centuries. Claes then mentions that the Belgian state chose the motto Eendracht maakt macht (which he gives only in this Dutch version, incidentally): “Unity Gives Power.” One has to think that it chose this motto out of vain hope.

There are Paul Claes’ choices, then, and I do think he remained largely neutral between Flemish and Wallon. Still, a better approach would have called for a little bit more daring sophistication from Politiken’s editors, to acknowledge reality and have two such cultural portraits for Belgium, a Flemish writer expounding over Flanders and a Wallon telling us about Wallonia. (Yes, and I would neglect that German minority over on the eastern border.)

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