Saturday, January 1, 2011

Belgae, belgaeing, belgone! *

What fun! It was great to do this again. Learning a language is a great exploration. There is always a new perspective. While there were other things I wanted to read in Dutch, and one I was reading before starting this book, I had not thought of Belgium in 1933. I think that learning a language forces you to be more open. As I wrote in the last blog, books are marketed to facilitate judging them by their covers. It's harder to do that in another language. This is not a book I would have chosen on my own. Where Dutch is concerned, I have to be even more open than I do in other languages. Such material is hard to find in Southern California. I read whatever there is.

In some ways, this book was more challenging than De eeuw van mijn vader (My Father's Century). Kaas is fiction. Fiction assumes a lot of prior knowledge. There you are, suddenly in the author's world. By contrast, nonfiction assumes that you don't know. When I started this book, I knew it took place in the Depression. I did not know about the position of Flemish people in relation to Belgian Francophones and their fellow Dutch speakers across the border in the Netherlands. It was easy relating to Frans Laarmans, his hard work and his dreams of better things for himself and his family. Having started a business and worked on someone else's start-up, I can say that Willem Elsschot got the atmosphere of such things exactly right. The business world is a place where people go to reinvent themselves. It means membership in all sorts of clubs and artificial elites where everyone is glad to be there.

Linguistically, I made a lot of progress, but I tried too hard. I have kept listening to Dutch language media as I did before. I understand more, but I am not a fluent listener. Reading is much easier. Dutch syntax and verb conjugations are starting to sink in. I don't know every word, but I know what part of speech every word is. Still, reading in such a new language can be daunting. I agonized for a long time over Laarmans' name. After I was halfway through, I read over the inner cover flap for the first time. There it was.

Before starting this book, I had gotten about halfway through Bill Bryson's Het verloren continent (The Lost Continent), which I had read in the original. Because I was familiar with the book, I read straight through, as I would in English. Reading known material in another language helps you focus on language learning. Because I am a translator, I also noticed what choices were made in rendering Bryson's work into Dutch. I would not have converted the distances into kilometers. That was jarring.

As you learn a language, you develop some affinity for where it's spoken. Before I started, I found myself rooting for Belgium. The urge to visit came together with the need so many commercials have for parodies and my own background in advertising. There is an orthodoxy that says all vacations must have perfect weather. Belgium's current campaign to attract visitors is a disaster. I went to work and had a great time.

There were two commercials that never made it. I couldn't work them out, but one is worth mentioning. It featured a disappointed family at a ski resort. They would love to see beautiful scenery but are confronted with the mountain problem. Everywhere they look, mountains get in the way of what would otherwise be an expansive view. Long lines and high prices for bad quality ski resort food make their vacation worse. Both problems are solved when the family decides to go to Belgium. It's easier to see more of Belgium's flatter landscape. Belgian food is a major improvement.

From here, it's on to other books.

*The title of this post is a pun. It combines the Latin word for the Belgian people and what baseball announcers say during a home run. "It's going, going, gone!"

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Chapter 24

This is the shortest chapter in the book. It is one page long. Laarmans is back at home, where Edam cheese is no longer served. The faces are relaxed, and he is grateful for his wife and children as they are.

With this, the book ends. This blog ends in a few days.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Chapter 23

In a way, this chapter takes us back to the beginning. Frans Laarmans is headed to the cemetery, where he goes every year. This is the first year he's going to see both parents.

On the way there, he buys some flowers. As in the beginning of the book, he is far from perfect. While carrying them around, he wonders about how he looks to others. Is he beyond reproach, or is the bouquet so big that he looks silly? Similarly, once he is before his parents' graves, he makes a conscious effort to grieve in the correct way, doffing his hat for a minute of silence.

While looking around for their graves, there is some surprise grief as he passes by the marker that reveals the existence of a second daughter who died as a little girl.

Once again, Dick Matena's scenery brilliantly adds to the story without being distracting. My favorite scene is on p. 279. We see Frans from the side, and he is looking away. Our attention is directed to what he is looking at, a grey scene of hats, umbrellas and bowed heads as Antwerp gets pounded by rain and snow.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chapter 22

This is another very short chapter.

In spite of the resignation, Van Schoonbeke invites Laarmans to yet another gathering. He had been concerned about his absence.

There, he finds out that the old lawyer has died, and a younger man has taken his place there.

The gathering ends on a cordial note.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Chapter 21

Two out of three.

Laarmans begs off again, citing illness. In this very short chapter, he sends in his resignation to Hornstra, "For health reasons." Three days later, he gets a letter from his rep in Bruges saying that sales are going well. "Perhaps I'll get my five percent."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Top 10 Things to See and Do in Belgium

Well, this is my top 10. If you start learning a language, you inevitably want to go where it's used. Reading about places also makes me want to go there. In my last blog, I mentioned wanting to see the Mak family's Schiedam and Medan. Now, I would like to see Willem Elsschot's Antwerp. I would like to see a lot of things in Belgium.

  • The HergĂ© Museum. Often, I am more interested in the trivia surrounding something than I am in the thing itself. I lost interest long before the end of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, but I went on a guided tour of Holmes' London, which started from where his address would be, had it ever existed. So it is with HergĂ©. I did not grow up with Tintin. Although I find the comics boring, I like the drawings. From what I have seen, the museum looks great.
  • The Brabo Fountain. Going there would be the beginning of seeing Willem Elsschot's Antwerp. I would like to walk around the area I have seen in so many of Dick Matena's drawings. I would attempt to recreate the wanderings of Frans Laarmans. A beer and some cheese would definitely be included.
  • A Baseball Game. There are lots of clubs. Sports are best when they're played for the love of the game.
  • The Beach. I like to go to the beach whenever I'm at a place that has one. I have been to beaches in Scotland and Chicago. Even in bad weather, a walk on the beach is great.
  • The Waterfront. I have always liked looking at boats in the water.
  • Bicycling. I have been to Europe a few times, but I have never ridden a bike there.
  • Waffles. One of my most vivid memories of Belgium is buying waffles from street vendors. We don't have anything like them in the US. Our Belgian waffles are just giant flavorless things that look the part.
  • In Flanders Fields Museum How come the Doughboys became the Bonus Marchers? What can we learn from this largely forgotten generation? They were pushed aside early on. Why? What have we been avoiding all this time?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Chapter 20

Back to work.

In this short chapter, Frans Laarmans returns to his old job. He is hailed by everyone, and he settles into his old desk and routine. It becomes clear that he was well liked and had friendships there.

I found this chapter unusual in a way. In the stories I have seen in this vein, the protagonist either goes straight to the top of his new profession or sets a new record for depths of ruin. Willem Elsschot takes a more realistic approach. While the cheese venture didn't go well, some sales were made. The old job may have been a dream crusher, but it wasn't so bad that he couldn't go back.

Dick Matena's drawings show what has changed and stayed the same since 1933. The office interiors at General Marine look like any modern office in an old building. Just add computers, and you're in 2010. The exteriors are another matter. Outside, there is the heavy cast iron, steel and brickwork of old industrial Europe.