I want to write a book in the style of the Great American Novel, disguised as a Great European Novel. I've googled it and there's no such thing as yet. Sweeping and epic, it should sum up the history of European humanity, but from the narrow perspective of people who live or work in Brussels.
I'd like to write this novel in the form of the periodic table. Like the Italian Primo Levi - each chapter a chemical element. Yes, each chapter of my novel should be about a capital city, as if each city were a chemical element in an ingenious Brussels system. With characters in search of all-consuming love, promising and impatient. Or else driven by a past that has made them wise and sad.
I'd like to describe the beauty of Administration, the eroticism of the Brussels business world. With you, in a European way. In conference centres, airports and hotels we'll examine how we, strangers, are nevertheless able to find one another. How we sometimes delight in misunderstanding one another. How we feel one another out with hands full of language. How there are some secrets we can only entrust to people we've never seen before and will never see again. The Portuguese writer Pessoa talked about ants that ‘communicate amongst themselves using tiny antennae which work a thousand times better than our complex language which eludes all comprehension’.
Everyone knows the miracles in the Bible, the beetle story by the German Czech Kafka, and Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which gods and demigods are turned into trees and springs.
Stories like this are about the fluidity of things, the rearrangement of bodily atoms, forever on the move. Or, as in the tradition of the Talmud, we should interpret texts, adapt and comment on them time and again, until we've forgotten how the first text went. Or like that story about the ship...
Consequently, any resemblance to persons or cities is coincidental. Even dates have been moved around effortlessly here and there. Because, even now, someone has to prepare the rooms for the future, fold the sheets tightly on the beds and lay out clean clothes for the travellers. The first arrived last night, and the fastest, the most intelligent are already running through our streets.
Brussels, the 1950s. Theo had recorded the monthly figures and discussed the new targets with his colleagues. Next, he entered the profit in the ledger. Everyone was working away diligently. The stationery sported the company name in a very vigorous red: MARCHAND NV/SA, Avenue Louise/Louizalaan. ‘Marchand’ was in sturdy, broad capitals. The red of the letters was not the signal red of warning signs or stop signs. Nor was it the colour of fire, of glowing, hot ash just before it turns into dead, white powder. No, it was the warmest, the most commercial red possible.
Marchand then. But didn't this young man used to go by a different name? Marcus or Maerski? Or Marcowicz? Or something to that effect? Perhaps these were silly questions, because the mercantile red was meant to draw attention to the brand name Marchand, if only to command business success, or as publicity, or as a guarantee of profit.
Theo did good business after the war. He chose the publicity industry and specialised in promotional items, which even then people began to call ‘gadgets’. He bought and sold. He was the sort of young, dynamic person who has hushed conversations, whispers or shouts, swallows softly and murmurs, or places eye-catching advertisements. Their words slip away skittishly when you grasp them, their thoughts curl. All year round, these men dress in timeless black tailor-made suits, white shirts, and the latest fashion in ties.
Whenever Theo rang a European business contact, he always asked what the weather was like where they were. In Madrid, scorching heat. In London, cloudy. In Paris, rain.
‘Then it will soon be drizzling here in Brussels’, said Theo, and all these international reports made him feel liberated and rich.
He was international, European.
To him, these telephones represented freedom, progress, prosperity. He put up a European country map in his office. He had decided that people speak more passionately if there's a map on the wall. It gave more weight to their words. Navigare necesse est, he thought, we have to sail, we have to explore the world - travel, trade and talk uninhibitedly. He talked about the helicopter view, big gestures. But not about our deepest desires, because we don't really know what they are.
Although he'd always written with soft blue ink in his youth, now he wrote in a cheerful, post-war turquoise. He remembered how this colour materialised in the words on the page as he wrote. For a moment the colour was greenish, the green of mint and eucalyptus, before turning turquoise. He leaned back
with his hands behind his head and studied the ceiling. His ultimate ambition was a public limited company with one hundred employees.
Naamloze vennootschap, nv.
Société Anonyme, SA.
Public Limited Company, PLC.
Because he thought he could have a perfect overview of one hundred employees, like before with his linguistic family tree and his constellations. He could just manage to know them all personally still.
Theo was the inspired, driven type. He could fire off ideas the way you can separate water from mud if you beat it gently. He clapped people on the back in a studied fashion. He did that to get closer to his people, to inspire them. He even remembered the names of most of his employees' children, but perhaps that was just to do with his passion for lists.
In 1958, Brussels hosted the World's Fair. The city was appropriated by cheery foreigners. That's what tourists are like, open, inquisitive, always in high spirits. Theo was amazed at the optimism which the concrete and the metal called out to him.
Everything will be O.K.!
We are human progress!
Alle Menschen werden Brüder!
Brothers! Frères! Fratres!
At the American theatre, beneath flowering Japanese cherry trees, he watched as letters appeared between the branches. He could read them easily: an N, an I, a C, no, an O, and he tried to make out the rest of the letters that spell ‘Nicosia’, the capital of Cyprus. He knew that from his stamps. But a curly S appeared, the prongs of an E, an X in the intersection of some twigs. And X. And another X. Theo fell in love with a woman, and shortly afterwards he finally had sex for the first time. His thoughts dissolved into something pink, something heavenly white, something with the sensitivity of eyelashes. So this was it, this momentary, inward-focused deafness.
This soft, graceful underside of things.
When he came, words flew at him out of nowhere. He listened to the echo of the ejaculation. What did the words mean? He didn't know. It was something from his innermost depths, from gaps and chinks in his being. Something which managed to rise to the surface before evaporating. Every time they made love, he was beset by messages he was completely unable to identify.
His girlfriend said he was quiet, non-communicative. Sometimes she called him antisocial, self-absorbed, far too sober. Her resentment mounted.
The relationship broke up. Theo's second girlfriend was someone who came up to him one day and told him she was in love with him. It all happened very quickly. She taught him to drink alcohol, but Theo remained on his guard the whole time, afraid as he was of spluttering, staggering people who talk too much. She insisted he spend the night with her.
In the morning, they were awoken by the sound of children playing in a nearby school. They had sex, and when Theo came, all he heard were the little fools shrieking relentlessly in the playground. He looked outside, looked at the commotion of the children. It was as if someone was daubing paint with an invisible hand. Theo wanted to hear messages he couldn't make out. Should he go back to the watermill of his youth sometime?
Nothing came of that relationship either.
When Theo drove to the watermill a month later, a board with a primitive drawing of a watermill was hanging from the gable. The mill had been turned into a restaurant with a small bird park around the back. Theo accompanied the manager as he went from cage to cage dishing out apples and alfalfa. There were partridges and a hoopoe, a magpie without a tail, a reddish bird from America. Under eucalyptus trees, large black grouse were being reared.
‘Tetraotetrix’, said Theo, and he surprised the manager even more as they stood in front of the cages with a stork, falcons and a sick cuckoo. Theo just came out with it:
Ooievaar, stork, Storch, cigogne, ciconia.
Valk, Falke, falcon, faucon, falco.
Koekoek, cuckoo, coucou, Kuckuck, cuculus.
In the restaurant, Theo saw a photograph of the man and woman who had taken him in during the war years hanging beside the parchment lampshades.
‘Is that the miller?’ asked Theo.
‘Yes, they died one shortly after the other ten years ago. Do you know them?’
‘No,’ lied Theo, ‘but it would make sense for you to have a photo of them here.’
‘Will you be eating here tonight?’ asked the manager. ‘We have wild boar on the game menu, and confit de canard.’ Theo assured the man he would, but he drove back to Brussels without stopping.
Translated by Rebekah Wilson
From Great European Novel (Grote Europese Roman. Amsterdam-Antwerpen: Meulenhoff/Manteau, 2007)