One of the benefits of reading longlists of prizes like the (now defunct) IFFP is discovering great books by authors with a bit of a back catalogue, a selection of books you can then go off and explore. Each year throws up one or two examples, and this year’s discovery was Belgian writer Erwin Mortier, whose novel While the Gods Were Sleeping eventually made the IFFP shortlist. Pushkin Press have picked up several of his books, with a more recent work, Stammered Songbook, out in English earlier this year. Before I get around to that one, though, I thought I might look back a little further – let’s see how Mortier started off his career 🙂
Marcel (translated by Ina Rilke, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short work narrated by a young boy living in the Belgian countryside of the 1970s. We meet him helping his grandmother with her monthly task of dusting and rearranging photos of the dead – an appropriate activity in a rather sleepy region.
Slowly, through a series of visits and conversations between grown-ups, one figure emerges from amongst the ranks of the dead, with the name Marcel appearing again and again in conversations the boy overhears. He becomes fascinated by the dead man, clearly a relative of sorts, evidently one who died in the war. Eventually, after the grandmother comes into possession of some letters, the boy is able to find out a little more about Marcel. Little does he realise the effect they’ll have when they are seen by someone he knows, a person who turns out to have been very close to the deceased…
Marcel is a rather short first outing from Mortier, but it’s a soothing, intriguing read, a book all about the past and its secrets (and not revealing them). Another book which won’t take much more than an hour to read, the beauty lies more in what’s hidden than in what’s revealed.
The setting, in terms of both time and place, is of great importance to the story. The Belgian countryside is slightly behind the times (as shown by the rather gaudy dresses the boy’s grandmother is asked to make for the locals), and there’s a preoccupation with the events of the past, happenings which have faded into the distance elsewhere. While the war has been over for decades, mental scars remain, as raw as if the ceasefire had happened a matter of weeks ago – as the boy will eventually discover.
The narrator is the central figure of the story, and Marcel is a Bildungsroman of sorts, with the boy just beginning to become aware of the world around him. Eavesdropping on his grandparents and other residents of his village, he learns about his family secrets. This is also a time when his sexuality is starting to develop, and the merest glimpse of his voluptuous female teacher (her body, her clothes…) affects him physically. However, it’s also a time of learning, and in an awkward encounter with his cousin, the boy discovers that others can have very different feelings to his own.
Clever and inquisitive (and spending much of his time with adults), the boy’s curiosity is fuelled by what he sees and hears. The old photos, of course, are a constant source of interest, and then there are the old clothes in a trunk in the attic:
“The shirts did not match the picture in my mind’s eye, which was of a slim figure, military, clean-cut. A dark shape scissored out of the night. The check shirt had a peasant collar. He must have worn it buttoned up to the top, the same way it now lay folded in the trunk. He may have rolled up the sleeves on hot days. Up to the elbows or over them. Probably over.”
p.74 (Pushkin Press, 2014)
The more the boy learns, the greater his obsession with Marcel becomes – as does ours…
In naming the novel after Marcel, Mortier is playing with us a little. The title raises the reader’s expectations, yet in truth it’s a bit of a red herring. Marcel is merely a representation of the unspoken memories of the past, and clue by clue we piece together what actually happened decades ago, a history the locals are not keen to discuss in public. Through snatches of conversation, we learn of the old prejudices of the villagers, memories of how everyone behaved in the war. By using the boy, Mortier forces the reader into his shoes, not yet trusted with these secrets; just as he does, we need to read between the lines to understand what’s being discussed.
The writing in Marcel is rather different in style to that found in While the Gods Were Sleeping, but elegant nonetheless (even if the content can be a little coarse at times). There’s none of the stream-of-consciousness rambling which runs through the later book, instead relying for the most part on simpler sentences, clear and descriptive, with an eye for comedy too:
“Master Norbert could very well have done with two chairs. The one he sat on struggled valiantly to support his rear, but was unable to suppress the occasional mild groan. Master Norbert’s torso seemed intent on annexing his head. It would not be long before there was barely a dent to separate the two.” (p.85)
This imagery is important to the book as the writer produces a series of scenes. Part of Mortier’s aim is undoubtedly to paint this childhood (the houses, fields and people) in his readers’ mind. By contrast, the plot almost seems unimportant (and for most of the book you could be forgiven for thinking the writer forgot to include one), even if the various threads do gradually come together, the final pages bringing a confirmation of our suspicions, while also shedding new light on the story.
Marcel is an enjoyable debut, even if it seems a little slight in comparison to While the Gods Were Sleeping. Still, I suppose it’s a good thing when writers develop over the course of their work 😉 I’ve still got a few more to try, so I’ll be very interested to see how Mortier moves along from the simplicity of his debut work to the depth of the later novels. Another great IFFP discovery, then – let’s hope that even under the new branding the prize continues to throw up interesting books and writers.