[This text was written when I was in residency at Passa Porta, Brussels in January 2011.]
Part One: Ondine versus The Unionists
I was at a party in Brussels, on the fourteenth floor of the Brusilia Tower with an unbelievable view overlooking the city, drunk on Jameson, explaining to someone that I was in residency at Passa Porta working on a new novel, and the conversation drifted to my ignorance of Flemish literature at which point I was told that I had to read Chapel Road by Louis Paul Boon. So the next day I am reading it and a week later I am finished, having read the entire book in a kind of feverish dream-state, and it is true, it is a remarkable work, reminding me of so many things in my own writing and in the world. Then it is suggested that I write about it and I am wondering how I might start and remember this passage from an interview with the American visual artist and activist Paul Chan, describing one of his key experiences with organized labor:
At the time, the mid-’90s, the AFL-CIO was doing college recruitment, and big labor unions were going to colleges and universities talking about how they should organize. It was thrilling. It all culminated with the UPS strike in 1997 in Chicago with Ron Carey, the Teamster president. Here’s a guy who came up from the rank and file of the Teamsters, who was forced into confronting a company that refused to negotiate with the workers on a new contract. 185,000 workers walked off the job, and UPS blinked. They broke the company and got a new contract. I lived close to a UPS processing center on the South Side of Chicago, and we’d bring them donuts. It was a great moment. Then of course Carey was booted; after the strike the Teamster hierarchy voted in the son of Jimmy Hoffa as president, even though Carey had just led this insane victory, and even though everyone knew Hoffa Jr. was shady. One of the lessons you learn is that changing things often means losing your job or getting jailed, or worse.
The disillusionment of this experience parallels something that seems, to me, at the heart of Chapel Road: that the complexity of the world’s problems are undeniable and heartbreaking, while solutions are by no means clear.
The struggle to form a union, or at the very least a worker’s sick fund, hovers in the background of the novel-within-a-novel that is the backbone of Chapel Road, as Ondine – the vicious, pre-pubescent, working class failed capitalist – sides with the ruling classes against her own, desiring to crush the burgeoning unionists though it is by no means in her best interest to do so. It is one of the many bitter ironies of the novel that she sees the socialists – who are trying desperately to help her and those around her – as enemies, reminding me of concentration camp graffiti that Heiner Müller was once fascinated by, written in a Jewish child’s hand: ‘I want to be a Nazi.’ It is the way that power and wealth usurp our desires, everyone wants to be the king, no one the servant; the reason disenfranchised Americans vote for Bush, because each and every one of them hopes that some day they too will be millionaires and can benefit from his tax cuts. Solidarity is a hard sell, it entrenches us within our individual status as not-powerful, and yet today, much like when Chapel Road was written, it remains the only method for truly bettering our lot.
I found the story of Ondine almost unbearably sad (I’m too sensitive to such things). I related to her youthful will-to-power, her unrepentant nastiness, her desire to “smash the world to pieces and pieces and pieces” and, most of all, to her eventual self-sabotage. I too wish to raise myself up beyond what is possible and, much like Ondine, find I am destroying my life in the process. But, as every good Salinger fan knows, it is dangerous to over-relate to literature.
At one point the people who live on Chapel Road come to Boon and tell him their stories, hoping to be included in his book, but each of the stories leaves him cold and he finds himself wondering when someone will tell him things that “don’t belong to the darkness of backwards flanders but to the darkness of their own frightened hearts.” However, for Boon, much like for each of us, the only option is to tell such things himself.
Part Two: Friend-Heros versus Books
It is the stories that surround Ondine’s which make Chapel Road as complex as it is and, for me at least, bearable. As Louis Paul Boon slaves away at the story of Ondine, at his “illegal writing” (writing without form or function), he also shows it, chapter by chaper, to his ‘friend-heros,’ – msieu colson of the ministry, johan janssens the journalist, tippetotje the painter, mr pots and professor spothuyzen – their lives and observations intruding on his book, becoming more important than it, taking up more and more space.
The story of Ondine takes place in 1800-and-something, when the unions began their battles, but now, in the present, “all those small socialists whose fathers fought and went on strike” are “led by men who no longer believe in a socialist society.” This disillusionment, which Boon discusses with his friend-heros from every possible angle, is more than anything jam-packed with comedy and spleen, an ironic despair so black it burns like a white hot coal. In the universe of Chapel Road, to view the hopelessness of the world surrounded by friends who can relate is perhaps the best we can hope for.
I have no friend-heros but I do have books. One of the other books I had with me in Brussels was Third Factory by Viktor Shklovsky and there were so many mind-bending parallels between the two, between Shklovsky’s struggle to remain artistically autonomous in twenties Russia – as the members of his literary group Opoyaz were folded into the party and one by one rejected their former ideals – and Boon’s equally tenacious desire to retain his artistic freedom. I believe in political art but, of course, art cannot flourish while tangled up in a party line. No, that was not my real reaction. What I more honestly felt was nostalgia for a time when there still were party lines, when there still was a left strong enough that one was forced to reckon with it. For both Shklovsky and Boon such reckoning might have been a curse, but I can’t help but feel we are similarly cursed without it.