From rags to…eh…more rags….
I won’t go so far to tell you that I’m one of those examples of the classical “The American Dream” – from rags to riches – but it’s still a fact that nothing in my youth prepared me for being an author. A Belgian author. A Flemish author. A Belgian/Flemish author published in Holland, Belgium, France, Canada, the US and next year in Italy.
I never dreamed it would come this far. Being the second son in a Flemish workers’ family, my destiny was to become a civil servant, my parents’ dream. A civil servant was synonymous with climbing the social ladder.
There was a problem. A lot of problems, really. I was a dreamer. I was a reader. I wanted to become an author. There were no books in the house. Reading was considered to be laziness, although I must say that my parents didn’t actually discourage it. They just thought it was superfluous, but, okay, if their son wanted to go to the library and read books for free, well, that was better than sitting in the pub, an all-time favorite Flemish pass-time. But that ludicrous dream of becoming an author! Madness!
“Not for our kind of people, forget it, son.”
At eighteen, I left the house. Don’t get me wrong. My parents were nice people. But life had learned them the hard way not to dream.
So I started out on a long and erratic journey. Chaos incorporated. Strangely enough – and even at the ripe age of nearly 62 I don’t know why – I never have felt “Flemish”. At eighteen, I felt like…Like an alien. For instance: I wanted to see the world, the whole world. And I hadn’t even visited the Belgian coast! I wanted to write novels set in far and exotic places. I wanted…I wanted…
Thus I began writing.
I wrote. And wrote. Got rejected.
Wrote again. Got rejected.
“Night Game”, My first novel that was accepted and published in Holland and Flanders when I was 28 was called “un-Flemish” by the literary critique. I smiled. And wrote on. Saw my craft maturing, saw my reading audience growing.
My novels were set in the exotic places I had dreamed about when I was just a kid. And the books were termed “special.” Mmm, I beamed.
But there was something missing.
I wrote about hardship, war, and violence. But it was all conjured up by my imagination.
I wanted to add another layer to my literary oeuvre.
I wanted to experience the themes I was writing about.
The dark side. The violence. The destruction.
Was it coincidence or Fate that gave me the opportunity to become a travel writer in 1990? From my perspective now, it seems like Fate… In normal circumstances, in spite of my yearning to see the ugly side of the world, I never would have the guts to travel to conflict zones, but Fate choose the right moment when the pr-officer of MSF (Médécins sans Frontières- Doctors without Frontiers) asked me to accompany a humanitarian mission to Somalia, the African country which at that time – 1990 – was immersed in a brutal civil war. I – a dreamer, a novelist, a rookie in traveling – said yes because my life was in shambles as a result from a recent divorce and I couldn’t care less about myself or my safety.
It all started there in Somalia. I witnessed what people can do to each other when conflicts erupt and I was totally bewildered: the war-circumstances were so different from a writer’s fiction.
Thus began a period of 13 years wherein I visited various war-zones and became more and more confused. Is there no end at the atrocities we are able to commit? Over the years, that question started to weigh me down, slowly suffocated me, wore me out. In 2003, I felt that I couldn’t go on anymore.
I stopped travelling.
The sad thing is: I thought that with the ending of my travel period, the world would leave me alone. But it wasn’t like that. Via the inescapable media I noticed that things were growing worse and worse. For example: during the Israeli-Lebanon war I saw on television the same destruction – only more extensive – as I had witnessed many years before during the Lebanon civil war. When Gaza was bombed, I saw the same destruction – only more extensive – than during the Second Intifada when I was there. I saw in the radical Islamist groups from my time – Hezbollah and such – the roots of the insane violence of IS….In 2015 we see every atrocity I saw between 1990 and 2003…They only are more numerous and bitter.
I think that’s the reason why I live a fairly secluded life in rural Flanders with my wife, tending for our 4 horses and writing my dark tales. By the way: my wife is a hypnotherapist and it heals me to see how physical or psychological challenged people – children and grown-ups – can benefit from being around – and working with our horses, those magnificent, noble creatures from whom we can learn a lot. I talk to them, I hear their answers, I feel their wisdom in my mind. So, although my time is limited, I started a blog “Conversations with Archimeda.” Archimeda is one of our mares, a very intelligent Arabian full bred. You can find my first conversation with her here: http://goo.gl/LN2zLX
For more or less four hours a day I’m with my horses. Afterwards, I still write…But that’s because I’m stubborn. My cross-over novels between literature and the mystery novel are maybe not the kind you expect. Although in life I (think) I am a good-natured person, my books are very dark and try to analyze our most hidden and perverse inclinations. You see, in my heart I am an old-fashioned novelist. I think that literature first of all must be an art. I use “mystery ingredients” or “thrilling effects” to make the journey into the crevices of the human mind and soul more accessible, but my main concern is: who are we, what are we, is there a difference between mind and soul, what, precisely, is madness, those kind of questions. My novels are given to me, I cannot write other although I sometimes – and, to be honest, maybe a bit more than sometimes – cringe and shy away for the scenes I write. There was a period in which I sought answers. Why did I focus on violence and the destructive aspects of sex? I asked myself the question on Goodreads – apparently, no one wanted to do that in public – and provided an answer. You can read it here: https://www.goodreads.com/questions/169869-why-is-baudelaire-s-revenge-so
But there’s more to it. My own youth was scarred by (sexual) violence. I wrote a novel about it: De vrouw die van Dante hield (The Woman Who Loved Dante). This book is not translated. I never open it, I will never read one word of that novel again. In De vrouw die van Dante hield I said what I had to say and now I don’t want ever to look back again in that direction.
Until now, two of my novels have been translated in English: “Baudelaire’s Revenge” and “Return to Hiroshima”. Baudelaire’s Revenge was published in hardcover, paperback and e-book by Pegasus Books. “Return to Hiroshima” is being pitched as I write this text, so I have my fingers crossed. The Anaphora Literary Press released in April “Dangerous Obsessions”, a hopefully very interesting booklet with 5 translated short stories in paperback and in e-book version. Those short stories, set in various countries – Algeria, Peru, Poland, Belgian Congo and Liberia – and time slots, are, in my eyes, an excellent introduction to my theme(s) and style(s).
So, there you have it: a combination of my origin, my own psyche and the life I’ve lead made me write novels that are deemed “controversial”. Almost all readers call my novels “special” and react often in black-and-white: they are diehard fans or they hate me. I’m good with that, it’s a sign that reading my books is not a “pass-time”, not a diversion.
It’s a confrontation.
Which is, in my view, what literature should be
After having (traditionally) published more than 30 books in The Low Lands (Holland and Belgium) and after 25 years of being a full-time writer, I thought I was an experienced author. Was I in for a surprise. Since April 2014, when the hardcover of “Baudelaire’s Revenge” was launched, I’ve learned a lot about the sensitivities of the American public. They are way different from European sensibilities. Those differences can be perplexing, but sometimes they are also funny. May I give you a “lurid” example? I hope I won’t offend you, but the mess-up was such fun, and at the same time a revelation, that I hope you’ll bear with me. I received some “stinging” remarks about comparing Commissioner Lefèvre’s glans in “Baudelaire’s Revenge” with a “plump radish”. Bad taste! Flawed style! First, I was flabbergasted because I had made that comparison as a homage to the 19th century French brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt who are world-famous for their diaries, written in a superb style. In one of those diaries, Edmond had written laconically, after a visit to the author and one of the great photographers of the nineteenth century Maxime Du Camp, that Du Camp had received them in an unbuttoned dressing gown, so that his glans penis, “the size of a plump radish”, was visible. Hilarity everywhere in the Paris literary salons of that time. Almost everyone in Belgium or France who loves literature, is familiar with that ironic – and original – comparison and I decided to use it in “Baudelaire’s Revenge” as a tribute to the Goncourt brothers who, at the start of my “career”, had taught me so much about style.
It turned out that virtually no one in the States is aware of that literary joke, not even intelligent and well read people who study literature. It’s completely understandable, of course, I am also not familiar with the subtle features of American culture.
So, there are indeed misunderstandings between us. The sex in my novels is not there for “commercial reasons”, on the contrary. I am – and was – fully aware of the commotion it would stir up. Bestsellers have a tendency to be “prudent”. I couldn’t. Charles Baudelaire was a genius as a poet but a pitiful wreck of a man who tried to embellish his sadomasochistic tendencies with his wonderful command of language, but ended as a wretched creature. If I wanted to be true to my subject, then the novel had to mirror this theme. I’m not one or other pervert who gets off the scenes he writes. On the contrary, they are hard and difficult to write and I try to use a very elegant language and wouldn’t dream of using some gutter-slang.
All in all, I’m a contented man. I’m grateful. Not many Flemish writers get the chance to venture into the great English reading market. Even if it stops here, with “Baudelaire’s Revenge” and “Dangerous Obsessions”, I’m happy. Of course, I would like to have huge successes, I dream of being translated in some more languages, adapted to the big screen, and so on and so on…But, at almost 62, life has taught me that you have to be satisfied with what you get. After my wild and turbulent younger years – three marriages with three wonderful women and a few other loving female partners – I’ve noticed that I’m most happy when I’m on the prairie with my criollo Bruja aka The Great Queen, my Arabian purebred Archimeda aka The Lady, my quarter Trigger aka The Rascal and our guest-horse, the paint Onida aka The Beauty. Every day, I think: please give me another few peaceful and loving years with my current partner Caroline, Lord and maybe, maybe, I will write a tender novel about a deep love for horses and hounds…And a funny one! Oh, how I would love to be funny….Caroline says I’m only amusing when I trip over my flat feet…Sniff….
Bob Van Laerhoven