For a few months now, the NEA Writers’ Corner has been featuring excerpts from the translation projects of this year’s fellows, along with author bios and statements. For anyone who’s been intrigued by the description and snippets of the author I’m working on, Belgian fabulist Bernard Quiriny, or who caught his stories in Subtropics and World Literature Today earlier this year, I thought I’d chime in with some updates.
In September, Le Seuil came out with Quiriny’s first novel, Les Assoiffés [The Thirsty Ones], which was well-reviewed and longlisted for several major prizes. It is an alternate history set in a 1970s Belgium that never existed: a closed matriarchal dictatorship, the result of a feminist revolution.
The POV switches between a group of credulous Western intellectuals—the first such allowed a peek behind Belgian borders and flattered by their privilege—and the diary of Astrid, a young woman starting to doubt the rigid rules of her society. Astrid has a shameful secret—a baby boy with a wet nurse. Men, who have no place in a regime that has perfected artificial insemination, are castrated and sent to work camps. “Our country was conceived for the perfect woman; we who aspire to perfection without attaining it live in constant fear of making a mistake, of breaking a law.” The opening scene sets the tone for this absurdist and occasionally farcical satire:
“The train wasn’t leaving for another two hours, but Langlois was already waiting at the station, in the café where he was supposed to meet Gould. As Gould had advised him to pack as lightly as possible, all he had was a travel bag and a small pouch thrown over his shoulder, with his camera and notebooks… Feverishly, he thought: ‘I’m going to Belgium. Belgium!’ Even now, so close to departure, he still couldn’t believe it. One month earlier, Pierre-Jean Gould had invited him over to his house along with Capucine Lotte, Léonore Alvert, Lucien Bordeaux, and Jean-Michel Golanski, four big names he barely knew, without telling anyone the reason for the meeting. Gould was highly excited. On the living room table he’d spread out a map of Europe; with the tip of a market he’d circled the names of two cities: Paris and Brussels. Then, since his guests were staring at him in incomprehension, he’d said, by way of explanation. ‘Departure point, destination. I propose that you accompany me to Belgium. Would you be available?’ And he’d fallen back into an armchair, savoring the effect of his words. A silence of several seconds followed; for the garrulous group gathered there, it was an accomplishment. Bordeaux broke it with a forced laugh.
‘It’s a joke!’ he bellowed. ‘A joke!’
He looked like he was choking, coughed, then added: ‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’
But Gould, a smile on his lips, was shaking his head. Bordeaux had gone pale then, and gazed passionately at the map.
‘Can you really take us there?’
Although the scene’s humor derives from the implausibility of a trip to Belgium arousing such rapture, I must admit that when the Fulbright commission told me I could spend a year there, I was pretty much just as thrilled and incredulous.
I met Bernard Quiriny for the first time in late September. He and fellow Belgian fabulist Thierry Horguellin were interviewed for Jeudis Lire, a free lunchtime literary series at the Palais des Beaux-Arts. Horguellin runs the fascinating blog Locus Solus, named for the Raymond Roussel novel, and his Borgesian collection of seven stories, La Nuit sans fin [Night Without End] was published in 2009 by the independent Quebec press L’Oie de Cravan. They also do a number of neat-looking comics.
In this interview and others, Quiriny has said that he sampled liberally from all 20th century dictatorships for his totalitarian dystopia: specifically, the way Western intellectuals had sometimes bent over backwards to defend their politics, and the impossible situation these intellectuals were put in by being at once public figures whose opinion mattered, and fearfully gracious guests of a state staging grandiose falsehoods for their benefit. He has also said that any resemblance his feminist dystopia bears to actual feminism is completely unintentional.
Sadly, I barely got to chat with the author, as the program ran late, cutting into the lunch planned for him at a nearby brasserie. I watched him devour his filet américain—a mound of raw ground meat on a bed of lettuce—in a matter of minutes and then, begging the forgiveness of all seated, rush off to the Central Station down the street to catch his train.