Bob van Laerhoven is a Flemish author whose wide-ranging literary oeuvre cuts across many genres: crime noir, literary fiction, memoir, short stories...
In his long career (see my earlier interview) he has published many dozens of books, which have won international awards and are translated into numerous languages, including French, English, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, Russian and – most recently – Chinese.
The last time I read a book as dark and dangerous as Bob van Laerhoven’s Return to Hiroshima, I was still a child. I remember it well, all those years ago: turning secret pages under the desk during lessons, my heart pounding. I was blind to the writing on the blackboard, deaf to the drone of the teacher; I wanted only to sink further into the terrible history unfolding in the shadows beneath the desk. So much death, so much terror, so much vengeance.
It was the Old Testament. Father-daughter incest in Genesis! Cannibalism in the book of Kings! The masterclass in divine treachery that is the Book of Job! It wasn’t that I was a sensitive child. I had been brought up on Grimm’s fairy-tales – the original, terrifying ones, not the milk-and-water versions they give out today – so I was used to horror. I was a tough child. I made a specialty of investigating road-kill. But I remember feeling, as I turned each page in that stolen, leather-bound volume, that nothing I had encountered in my life had prepared me for this. Until that day, I had thought I knew everything, but I realized then, as the fragile pages crackled with electricity, that I had been deluded. The world rolled like a ship underneath me; the sky roared. Clearly, the truth about the world was much worse than I had realised. And all around me there were innocents who did not know.
Later, of course, I grew blasé again. In adulthood I went back to regarding myself as tough. I read the darkest books. I confronted darkness in myself. I joined the Olympic squad for Forgiving-Unforgiveable-Criminals. But I was not prepared for Return to Hiroshima. After all these years, I was back in that classroom, with the world rolling and the sky roaring. The world still is much worse than I knew – and others still are ignorant.
At the risk of thunderbolts, I have to tell you that Return to Hiroshima is better written than the Old Testament, and its characterisation – this is van Laerhoven after all – is more subtly achieved. The writing is characteristically delicious: if he hadn’t settled for writing novels he could have been a poet, or even something more demanding, like a shadchen or an insurance salesman. His limpid prose floats weightlessly, wafting the reader along, intoxicating them – just before, rather often, landing a delicate sharp blow that they weren’t at all expecting. And the literary vision in Return to Hiroshima is certainly more coherent than that of the Old Testament (which by comparison is little more than a picaresque, with the Jewish people as its hero). In this disturbing novel, van Laerhoven creates a filigree of story so intricate and elegant that it is hard to believe his claim that he does not outline first, but weaves his story from threads that ‘go with the flow’. But on the other hand, this story is even more relentless in its darkness. At least the Old Testament gives you a break from time to time, with some happy-ending sub-plots. (If the author of Hiroshima had written it, Ruth would certainly have ditched her mother-in-law; the angels would have laughed while the lion tore Daniel to shreds, and Jonah would never have escaped from the whale – we would probably have learnt in detail how he got digested.) There are no merry sub-plots in Return to Hiroshima.
True, van Laerhoven fools you into complacence from time to time. The book is structured as a thriller, a horrific mystery, a dark crime novel. There is a huge conspiracy, a secret criminal empire. A villain who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. A woman, grotesquely formed, and a strange dead baby. There’s a terrible calculus of deaths. And all of it is set against the background of Hiroshima, an obliterated city, rebuilt but not redeemed: a country still bearing the shame of horrific things done there, both to and by its people. But all this is just grist to the mill (isn’t it?) for readers of crime noir. And as is conventional in such fiction, van Laerhoven introduces a handful of characters who bring optimism, a sense that there might be a candle or an ambulance on its way, a seductive promise of redemption. ‘My goodness, it is certainly very dark!’ I was thinking part way through, as I gasped a little from the latest unexpected death. ‘But that’s just the genre: it’ll all work out in the end. That nice Belgian man with the sadly dead sister will sort it out… or perhaps even the villain’s strange daughter. I love a dark story, but I know the rules: the author will twist me around and not let me be comfortable, but there will, at the end, be some wry resolution. Not of course a ‘happily ever after’, but certainly enough light in the darkness that I will find my way back to my family and eat my supper without my guts tearing.’ But there is no such denouement. There is no light in Hiroshima.
When I first read Hiroshima, I imagined its author tightly trussed in black, probably chain-smoking or snorting something nasty, writing in some basement in a city without trees. Too clever and too bitter for companions – unless perhaps a couple of bodies, dead (or worse alive), gagged up in a cupboard somewhere. His earlier existence as a children’s writer seemed particularly disturbing. Had those little books held the seeds of his later ones? When he offered up those baby farmyard animals – all wide eyed and full of wonderment – was he counting the days to tell his readers what comes later? Castration? Imprisonment? Slaughter?
The man in the basement haunted me, even after I learnt better. As the author of this novel, that figure seemed so much more plausible than the real man I discovered. When I searched the web for traces of van Laerhoven (I admit it, I take my fandom seriously: I cyberstalk my quarries without mercy) the author I discovered was a mensch: urbane, self-effacing, erudite, deep and wise. He said once in an interview that he didn’t ‘want the author and the man to be exactly the same person’, and perhaps they are not. But when I searched for the man, what I found was even less like the character in the basement: Robert Victor Flora van Laerhoven is a man ensconced in a countryside of fields and woods, with rescued horses, dogs, a cat… a man whose politics are green not black… a kind, courageous, funny, forgiving man. (OK, no specific evidence for the ‘forgiving’ attribute, but I’m putting it in quickly in case he objects to this review… with any luck he’s also suggestible.) So where do the dark books come from?
If one digs obsessively through the internet (I am more of an archaeologist than a surfer, really) it is clear that the dangerous writings of van Laerhoven contain a great deal of himself. It’s no secret that he has spent much of his adulthood as a journalist in war zones, somehow compelled to confront – in himself and others – all that is most troubling in human behaviour and mentality. And it is clear that both this quest and his writings are driven by dark forces, inside and out, that have haunted him for decades (and still do). Clearly, his childhood was difficult, his relationships complex… I’ll zip it at this point (if you are as intrusively nosey as I am you can do the archaeology, but he seems to be quite a private man and I’ve pushed my luck already – I’m worried in case I’m wrong about ‘forgiving’.)
So readers take note: Bob van Laerhoven is a difficult, dangerous, wonderful author. (That’s the reason why I worked with such devious determination to get an interview with him as the first entry in this blog*.) And though it’s not even my favourite among his many novels, Return to Hiroshima is a difficult, dangerous, wonderful book – well worth risking the dark and some sleepless nights for. I will finish with something important that he said of the book himself.
“I view ‘Hiroshima’ as a warning parable. This novel doesn’t need admiration. It needs to be shocking: when you’ve been confronted with something that carries no light at all, you’re going to look for it more intensely elsewhere. That was my hope while writing the novel”.
It worked for me, anyway. After reading this novel, I did look more intensely for light elsewhere. I am much richer for it.
* In the interests of scrupulous accuracy, I have to confess that Bob van Laerhoven was in fact only my second choice for this illustrious position in my blog. I had initially hoped to get God in for an interview, but He never replied to my emails. I have taken my revenge by dissing His writing. (Other authors whom I might approach for an interview: be warned. Saying “no” is fine, and perfectly understandable, but if you fail even to answer, I will think you impolite, and then it will be open season…)
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