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Article: My Little War

February 1, 2010

By Holland Park Press

My little War by Louis Paul Boon, translated by Paul Vincent, Original Dutch title: Mijn kleine oorlog.

 

This is the first in a series of articles looking at examples of Dutch & Flemish authors in translation.
 
Louis Paul Boon, his readers often refer to him by affectionate nickname Boontje, has own unique writing style. It is deliberately archaic to reflect the way Dutch is spoken by the common man in Flanders. This style is beautifully preserved by the translator, Paul Vincent.

My Little War is set during the Second World War in Belgium, or more specifically Flanders. Boon’s description of war certainly gives the reader plenty of opportunity to interpret the book according to their own point of view.


This book provides a very vivid description of a small rural community in Flanders doing the best they can in harsh circumstances.


Excerpt: the last few paragraphs of ‘The Border’



………………………………………………..Do you have any idea where
we are? asked What’s-his-name. I looked and all I saw was a flat
expanse covered with rubble. This may be where that café was the
day before yesterday where they had that nice pickup truck. And
this is where the baker’s was with those three hot-blooded daughters.
The day before yesterday it had been the village of Veltwezelt
and now it was nothing. One of the three daughters, the youngest
and I think the prettiest, was lying there with . . . but I’d rather
forget that as quickly as possible. And on the threshold of the
ex-café lay two Germans. Just as though they’d drunk themselves
stupid, said What’s-his-name, but I couldn’t make myself laugh.
We followed the main road towards the border where there was
a fencepost and beyond that pole a different country and a different
people. A farmer came out with a bucket of water and he
said that if we were thirsty we could drink. I looked at the farmer,
and you’ll laugh, but he looked just like the Flemish writer Stijn
Streuvels.


So what if that farmer was the spitting image of Stijn Streuvels?
You may think I’m trying to make the point that the people from
Germany could just as well have been the people from Belgium,
but really, I’m not—he looked like him, that’s all—and I still don’t
know if the people there were the same as us, we didn’t see anything
but bits of meadow surrounded by barbed wire, and fat
women who came from a long way off to look at us as we stood
there naked to be checked for lice—apart from that we saw S.S. officers
who did nothing but count and count and count again, and
apart from that we were hungry, and apart from that we GOT lice
but by then there were no more inspections.


It is a particular interesting book for an English speaking audience because they were not occupied during war and My Little War very vividly describes the effects of an occupation on the common man.


Excerpt: the observation at the end of ‘Piano for Sale’



And when the planes are overhead the rich people who are pro-
Belgium say: why do they have to DROP BOMBS DROP BOMBS
every night—but they keep their gates locked so that the workers
trying to flee the factories or the train station don’t run through
their gardens and trample the grass.

 

And the poor people who blame the rich people for that—very
quietly, so they don’t hear—ask: is that being pro-Belgium? But
when they steal coal from the railroad, they sell it to the rich people
and sit in the cold.

 

And the ones who are pro-England won’t hear a word said against
the English, they’re good and brave and the best soldiers and they
can swing dance and swing dancing is the best kind of dancing
there is—while the others say the English are cowards who can’t
do much besides dance, and swing dancing is the most indecent
kind of dance there is.

 

And the Gestapo raid the house and push my wife into a corner
and come running into my garden just as I’m trying to push some
lopsided sprouts into the soil—it’s only to check my papers but I
thought it was the end of me, I could already feel the rubber cloth
on my face.

It certainly provides an indictment against the seemingly random injustice of war. For me the most chilling aspect brilliantly conveyed in the translation of the Dutch ‘Mijn kleine oorlog’ into ‘My Little War’ is that the war Louis Paul Boon describes isn’t small in size, it maybe a localised experience seemingly insignificant to the world at large, but even so it shows small decisions have an impact on the big war.


We are always a bit at war and should be vigilant of the bigger questions. You may not have the courage or the intelligence to provide much opposition but everyone knows right from wrong. My Little War rightly makes us think: What would I have done?


However you read this book, you will find some things heartbreaking, yet funny, and be gripped by the injustice and the harshness of war as well as learn more about ordinary life in Flanders through plenty of well drawn characters.


Example: taken from ‘The Two Blind Men’



…..
   Then the front door of the hospital finally thaws out at 2
o’clock on the dot, and from the shuffling of the feet passing
him and the warmth coming out of the hallway, the blind man
on the left realizes that people are going in, first the woman with
the red nose, who leaves the blind men and hurries off to Ward
III, then the other people hurrying off to the other wards, the
ones for men on one side and the ones for women on the other.
Come on says the quiet blind man and tugs at the sleeve of the
blind man who’s still summing up and telling stories and perhaps
is about to say “just think of everything we’re going to have
to go through” to the woman who’s been gone now for ages.
They point their sticks forward, hold their heads back, lift up
their feet, and go in. As for myself, right behind them, I hear the
doorman say, “the last ones in should close the door,” and so one
of the blind men turns round and shuts it in my face. So there I
am, outside, between the front door of the hospital, again frozen
shut, and the stinking factories and the stretch of water and the
back gate of my garden, in the winter of Stalingrad.


And then those Jewish kids who were picked up for no reason on
their way back from school and shoved into a truck and taken to
the station where they were loaded into a cattle train, and where’s
the train going?
   And someone says those trainloads of Jews are gassed, but I
can’t let myself believe that if I’m going to keep my conscience
quiet, since if a book was going to be written about the war, who’d
have the nerve to describe a train like that?
   Maybe imagine a movie, you see the train pulling away, but
alongside the tracks, among the cinders and the yellow broom,
there’s a schoolbag lying open, with a penholder and eraser that
have fallen out.


And speaking of train tracks, they said on the radio that we should
be avoiding them, but how can you avoid train tracks in Belgium?
Try it, go out and walk left or right down the main road, head into
the fields, turn your back to the repair shop, and just count the
unmanned railway crossings—ha!


As with many literary novels inhabited with vivid characters, some people upon reading the book will think they are in it. Something Louis Paul Boon addresses brilliantly in the chapter called ‘Self-Defence’


Excerpt: from ‘Self-Defence’



….
   First and foremost the writer of a Little War has to believe
that books are a form of public entertainment in which there
can be no swearing or spitting on the ground and in which no
one’s sleeping conscience is ever startled awake. And then he has
to remember that he needs to keep his eyes open at all times yet
never write anything down as he actually sees it, because that isn’t
art—so the literary people tell us—that’s just making yourself into
a camera. And a writer has to be particularly careful not to walk
down any dark alleys, since he might bump into someone who
thinks he recognizes himself in Mr. Swaem the profiteer or that
gentleman from the meat-inspection board or Proske or even
What’s-his-name himself. There are 36 people who think they’re
What’s-his-name, and eleven gentlemen who give this particular
writer angry looks whenever they walk by because they recognize
themselves in Mr. Swaem—though he had only a symbolic
Mr. Swaem in mind. Two of them wrote him threatening letters,
five think they’re Mr. Boone (because I’m fat, they say of
themselves, and even though I don’t live by a dump, the guy next
door’s always leaving his garbage cans out), four buttonholed the
writer’s wife cursing and swearing and saying they weren’t going
to take this slander lying down, and I threatened to come and
personally drag him out from behind his desk. ……



My Little War is published Dalkey Archive Press on the 23rd of February in paperback at £9.99. ISBN 978-1-56478-558-9, 128 pages.