A conversation with Bob van Laerhoven

The distinguished Flemish author Bob van Laerhoven is an author who quintessentially embodies the mission of this blog: his work is always startling, usually dark, sometimes difficult, frequently dangerous. He is best known in the English speaking world for his strange, haunting, literary thrillers, which have garnered critical acclaim – and awards – around the world. There are short stories which he has kindly written in English from the start, but his extraordinary novels are in Flemish and so far only a handful have been translated into English (the French, Russians, Swedes, Italians all got in more promptly). The work most recently available in English is his pitch-black crime thriller, Return to Hiroshima (hold your breath: it will be reviewed on these pages tomorrow). His oeuvre is much wider however – even wider than he generally admits. Now in his sixties, his first book was published when he was only a teenager, and exactly how much he has published – or in how many genres – is itself a bit of a mystery. He is prone to declaring that it is ‘more than 30’ or ‘more than 40’ works, but when reviewing his back catalogues I stopped counting after a hundred, and there were sections still to open. Perhaps he is very modest, or forgetful – or perhaps he likes secrets…

In this interview, I am honoured to escort this remarkable author up the wobbly scaffolding to the topmost platform of my literary building site, to look out across his long career so far, to argue with him a little, and to make myself dizzy with the breadth of his landscape.

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Heer van Laerhoven, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I am deeply honoured to have you as my first guest on this building site. But to business… I want to take a long view in this interview, so I need to take you to a high place. Please put on your hard hat and follow me. Do hold the rail and step carefully on the scaffolding.

Please, let me first state that I’m impressed by your unusual and stylish questionnaire with a lot of in-depth questions that turn my head around and make it spin.

Your head is spinning already? Hold the rail, meneer! Health and Safety: as important on book sites as on building sites, don’t you agree? I have carelessly fallen many times already, which is why I am wearing these plaster-casts, but you are still intact and I must keep you that way. I will try to keep this short and, as far as possible, sweet. But thinking of sweetness… I’ve heard you haven’t taken sugar for decades! Did you give up sweetness as a political statement? Or were you saving your teeth? (I cannot help noticing that they gleam like razors…)

Although you are demonstrating considerable amounts of intel, you seem to believe all the bugaboo I’ve come up with during my decades as a writer who had to make ends meet each month in a region of Belgium where only the comic Tintin and some very Catholic writers were successful. So, not for political reasons but utterly selfish motives (the ruthless spreading of myths so I kept on being interviewed by all kinds of media) I damned all sugar and instead recommended the Indian art of cooking with tons of Curcuma!

When it was time for something new to awaken the media again, I promoted vegetarianism and even veganism! In co-authorship with a young and talented writer, I even wrote a cookbook. It’s known all over the world that cookbooks sell. We came up with an unusual cooking process. The title of the book says enough: Motorcooking for beginners. Yes, you read it correctly: we presented hilarious car trips to all kinds of weird places – and people – in Flanders and Wallonia, during which the hot engine cooked dinner. A hit!

Very nice if you like gasoline, heer van Laerhoven. Motorcooking indeed! There was certainly no more sweetness. But I do remember a moment when your books were full of sweetness. Whatever happened to Snorkie the Circus Dog? (Oh that high wire act! He taught me all I know about Health and Safety…) And Bontje the Baby Bull, and Woletje, and Kiki?

Ah, a one-shot isn’t enough: being a writer in a small language community – Flanders has five million people – I had to diversify and to spread my talent over many subjects to survive. One day, I looked at my three young children, who were utterly destroying the house, and thought that they needed some decent upbringing instead of behaving like small Neanderthals. I knew they wouldn’t accept moral rules and good manners from me, knowing as they did that I didn’t have any myself. Therefore, I proposed to tell them each night a bedtime story. It didn’t take me long before I saw the commercial opportunity to turn my best bedtime stories into children’s books. Soon, young mothers began to send me fanmail, and many babies received the proud forename, Robert or Bob. There were even packs of dogs who were knighted by their owners with this token of great affection and gratefulness for my animal stories. I often heard someone yell, “Bob, fetch!” and then saw some pale mongrel rushing after a tumbling stick.

But something happened! One moment your readers were sitting on your metaphorical lap while you fed them stories of these sweet farmyard friends, and then, insidiously, the sweetness ebbed away… They should have seen what was coming!

It was as Mother Nature has willed it: my children soon became pristine adolescents. I had to adapt my strategy, and introduced sex and violence (in that order) into my stories. When my children’s adulthood appeared on the horizon I threw away all the reins that had kept me sane and started a series of books, so intricate, multi-layered, perverse, and pitch-dark that after a page or two even I lost all hope in life.

I remember that time too. I think that was when you were travelling the world – you quite lost your nice Flemish tastes. You cooked up nothing except a bellyful of Alejandro’s lies, washed down with Black Water. Why did you travel to such bitter places? Even when you came home you insisted on taking us to the battlefields of Argonne. Couldn’t you have taken us to the chocolatiers instead?

At that time I didn’t know I was doomed: all my life, I would long for chocolatiers and elfins but had to stuff myself – and my readers! – with the rotting, maggot-infected meat of tortured broken horses, and legions of dead people who I had offed in terrible ways in my books.

All your life? Do you think you are too old to reform? Before this interview, I had prepared myself to break into government offices to find out your age. But this proved unnecessary since you boast of your age on Facebook. Forgive me for saying, but at at your tender age, this is unseemly, meneer. Sixty-six? You ought to be at least eighty-five before you start doing that.

Madam, I squeezed my life full enough to exist at least for three BVL lifetimes, and that’s why I feel that I’ve amassed at least a hundred and eighty years, so I’m entitled to some whining and grumbling about my age, and all those ‘cool youngsters’ who are writing nowadays, pah!

But look down now (hold the rail, you may suffer from vertigo…) Below you, I have carefully arranged all your years to date, from your birth, just below us, to the horizon where the land is full of fog and the future is still unfolding. If all of those years were to be washed away in a time-tsunami, which two or three would you like me to rescue for you?

I would pick two periods if I may. The first took place while I was forty-six and spent three demanding, confusing, and wonderful years in an intricate and complicated relationship in Antwerp with a call-girl, twenty-three years my junior. It was a sensuous but also mysterious relationship at the same time hampered and helped by her profession. In the novel Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, the protagonist followed in his imagination “a subterranean golden thread.” Well, that was the feeling I had when I was with Cindy. Later, when we had said goodbye as good friends, I wrote a book about her (with her permission): Seven Letters To My Call-Girl (Zeven Brieven Aan Mijn Callgirl). I’m convinced that it’s one of my best autobiographical novels, although commercially, it was regrettably less successful than the cross-over novels between literature and the suspense genre that I usually published.

The second period started when I had passed the cape of fifty and met Caroline, an equine therapist who cared for her four horses around her house and gave therapy to children and adults with psychological or physical problems. Not much later, I sold my house and moved in with her. Caroline taught me a great deal about spiritualism and the wisdom of horses, which they hide for humans unless they are treated with love and respect, two cornerstones of a relationship with horses that are often forgotten by us, dumb and cocky humans. We’ve been together for fifteen years now, and Caroline still teaches me every day new things about working with horses, those fabulous beings that were called ‘Messengers of the gods’ in bygone times. For the moment, I’m rather sick, so I can’t spend as much time as I want to with our four darlings, and I feel depressed about it, a sign of how vital interaction with human-loving animals is. If everyone knew that, the world would be a far better place.

For most of the years below us, you have been an author. Impressive! You have written more books than I have had haircuts in my life (I cannot but notice that the worst of your books is considerably more stylish than the best of my haircuts). So tell me, which is your favourite book? I don’t mean which was the most successful – I know all about your many prizes – but which do you love the most, really? (I am holding my breath here. If you do not choose the one that I like best, I will be forever disappointed, but either way will smile nicely and won’t breathe a word…)

It was hard to choose between the novels Gaby-of-Copper and Black Water. But Black Water, although less ambitious than Gaby-of-Copper wins by an infinitely small margin. Black Water (Zwart Water) is semi-autobiographical. I am not feeling well, and time is money, so, although it is not my favourite way of communication, here is the blurb of Black Water. Hopefully, it will give you a hint, a whiff of the novel’s soul. I very much would like to translate Black Water, but I’m afraid the novel isn’t ‘commercial’ enough for the English reading audience.

I see. Look, I am smiling. I’m trying to keep it inscrutable like the Mona Lisa. But now I have a request about Return to Hiroshima. It is not my favourite of your novels, though it is truly magnificent. It is, even for me, a little too dark and dangerous. And you kill off all the characters I cared about. Yes! I cared about them ALL actually! You were utterly merciless. So as a favour, because today at least we are pretending to be friends, could you give me one paragraph of happy ending about just one of them, an alternative paragraph that will never go in your book, but that ends a little more luckily, and I can keep in my broken heart?

Excuse me, but you seem to forget that one character in Return to Hiroshima survives, and experiences a certain kind of catharsis. It’s Xavier Douterloigne, son of a Belgian diplomat who resided in Japan for years. After the dramatic death of his sister Anna, Xavier, blaming himself for Anna’s death, returns after more than ten years to Japan, where he and Anna grew up while their father was ambassador for Belgium in Tokyo. Xavier gets tangled up in a feud between youth gangs. They want to kill him with the bite of an Irukandji, a deadly poisonous jellyfish. He survives but remains in a coma for over a week. Afterward, still deeply impressed by what happened to him, he visits Hijiyama Park in Hiroshima, where, as kids, Xavier and Anna used to play during holidays spent in Hiroshima. They buried a tin box – they called it their ‘time capsule’ – in the park under a cherry blossom tree. Xavier searches for the tree, finds it, and excavates the box. Brother and sister had filled the box with Anna’s poems, Xavier’s most cherished model car – a Porsche 956K Hockenheim – a lock of each other’s hair, an old locket that once belonged to their mother, and a pen belonging to their father. Anna, the undisputed leader, saw it as a token of their love for each other. Together, they swore – like children do – to dig up their time-capsule after ten years as proof of their togetherness.

Now, it’s Xavier alone who, with trembling hands, digs up the time capsule and finds in the box all the items they’d put in ten years ago, plus a “dark red petal at the bottom of the box.”

The rest you can read in Return to Hiroshima: “He’s certain the petal wasn’t there when they buried the box. And even if he’s mistaken, it’s still impossible: cherry blossom petals only keep their intense colour for a couple of days. He holds the petal to his nose. Its smell stuns him… like an arrow to the heart.”

So he survives? Really? I think you are tricking me, heer van Laerhoven. Through that long dreamlike sequence in the park, going back to the past and his sister, is he not, in fact, still in the hospital, dreaming in his final hours? And at the moment when he finds the unfaded petal – the moment when you showed us how past and present have collapsed for him, when the fragrance of the petal stuns him ‘like an arrow to the heart’ – were you not telling us, albeit very delicately, that he too, at that moment, had died? We do not meet him again in the novel, and this reading seemed in line with the words he spoke to his sister, about Hiroshima: “It’s also the city of death…” Xavier pictured death as a long journey over stormy oceans filled with monsters and the like. I felt this was a rather apt comment on the journey on which he and you had taken us. So I am most suspicious, heer van Laerhoven! But I suppose that you have met my request in a way: a happier interpretation. But perhaps it is only a trick of the translation. I was going to ask you about that. Your books have been translated into so many different languages – even Chinese!

Books, plural, being translated into Chinese? That’s too much honour. It’s only one book up till now (although they’re looking at a second one). For now it is the short story collection Dangerous Obsessions, which, by the way, is also translated into Italian, Spanish, (Brazilian) Portuguese, and Swedish. In Chinese, it is only available as an e-book for the time being. At least, I think it is, because the publishing house, Fiberead, sent me a sales link… which doesn’t work in Belgium. In a short period, I’ve noticed that our friends the Chinese have a whole other notion of publishing, deadlines, contracts, et cetera than we have. For the moment, they only sent me the Chinese cover of Dangerous Obsessions via mail, and I’m still waiting for a (foreign?) working link of the e-book and my contract. Not that I’ll be much wiser when I get those: of course, I can’t read Chinese.

I wanted to ask about your relationship with translators. In Return to Hiroshima, you worked with translator Brian Doyle. It is clever how he reproduces in English the tone of your wonderful FlemishHow closely do you have to work with the translator to achieve this? And how do you feel when your work is translated into a language you don’t know and cannot check? Do you lie awake worrying that your meaning may be distorted or traduced in the translation?

When my work is translated into a language I don’t speak or understand I estimate the quality of the work by a couple of parameters. First, the number of questions my translators ask me during their work. Second, are their questions giving me the feeling that they are digging deep in the text? It’s a crude yardstick, I know, but I don’t know any other. Sometimes, one gets lucky. The lovely Russian translator Larisa Biyuts sent her translation of Baudelaire’s Revenge together with the English version to an ex-colleague of hers in London, a young Russian journalist. He sent me a positive reader’s report about her translation so I’m fairly sure that Larisa’s work is an elegant piece of language. But for the other translations, let’s say it’s in God’s hands, harf harf harf (typical Flemish laugh…)

I’m suddenly feeling a bit overwhelmed by the thought of your books being translated into Chinese. It’s making me giddy, so please take my elbow for a moment! Just on the plaster-cast please. That’s better. Let’s climb back down the scaffolding now, a little closer to those sands where you were born. No! Don’t look down! Let’s go back to Bontje and Woletje and Kiki. I guess they’re safe with you, as a vegetarian (I trust that wasn’t just ‘bugaboo’ as well! You don’t think I’m gullible, do you?) Perhaps in your next book, you could go back to your roots and write an animal story…? Or even a story about a dragon? I was greatly impressed by the dragon who came to your birthday party…

Do you perhaps understand Mandarin? If you do, I’ll write you a story about a dragon who can’t understand why his shadow can’t breathe fire like he does and thus pities it. He goes on an adventurous quest to give his shadow fire-breath to make it happy.

Thank you. I shall make it my business to learn Mandarin immediately, just as I have had to learn Flemish in order to read the beautiful ‘Seven Letters’…(Oh dear! Please forget I said that – I was trying to be inscrutable. No! It was only to read your little animal books that I troubled to learn Flemish). Yes. Animal stories. I have heard that you have become something of an animal politician – standing in the recent election in Belgium for Deer-Animal, the Animal Party. How did this happen? You seem, in your books, quite seriously disaffected with humans. Do you love animals better than people now?

I’m not a great lover of the human race, no. After what I’ve seen between 1990 and 2003 in conflict-zones, I am shocked in the deepest layers of my soul – I like the concept of soul – by the Human Condition. I spent so much time, energy, and books searching for the origin, the fuel, of our violence, our inner loneliness, and our greedy egos. And you know what? I found only echoes, mirror-effects and shards of that source. It still is a mystery to me. Is it the shadow of what we call love? Is it because we know we all have to die? Does it hide in our genes? If you can tell me, I’ll write a book about it, although I’ve sworn that The Firehand Files, published in 2017 in Belgium, and not yet translated would be my last novel.

I wrote “what we call love” because I think that human love is a distorted echo of a pure feeling that only can thrive in higher dimensions than ours. In my eyes, the love of a dog for humans resembles more closely that pure love. Some people say it’s instinct and self-preservation of the faithful canines, but being around animals a lot, I believe it’s much more than that. A dog loves you without reservation, without ups and downs, without bad days. A dog will always light up when he sees you, even though you were only a few minutes away. In that respect, I think they’re superior to us. So, yes, for me it’s easier to love animals than humans, although I do see that humans are also capable of higher feats of love. I think that, in this regard, women are often in the lead. For example: in Sarajevo, during the Bosnian war, I noticed that it was only women queuing up at the water-and-food distribution sites in the ruined city, to feed their children and family. Queuing up was the most dangerous thing to do in lethal Sarajevo. Snipers could decide any minute to kill or maim you. You never knew if and when they would strike. I queued up once with the women to interview them, and after three-quarters of an hour, I was dizzy with fear. They did it stoically almost every day, and nearly everyone whom I interviewed had a female friend or relative who was killed while standing in a row for food and water.

Yes, love is inborn in us, but for some elusive reason, it’s distorted. Maybe, I’ll find out why after my death.

Heer van Laerhoven, I may never recover from the honour of your agreeing to this interview. Thank you for your time and your answers. You may take off the hat now. I needed to keep you safe for the sake of your future books, but the danger has passed. I wish you very well for your next 66 years.

The Hard Hat Book Site

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