Belgium is a dark place. It is ordered, respectable – a peaceful forgotten corner of trees and fields and canals. A patchwork of suburbs that is itself a suburb of Europe. You will not have your wallet stolen as you are walking down one of its streets, but you may have your soul stolen – to quote the great chronicler of the future, J.G. Ballard.
I don’t know why I chose Belgium in which to set the events that take place in my first novel The Beginning of the End.
But when I think of Belgium, maybe I think of a man sitting at a desk in a government bureaucracy, staring at the clock on the wall for the hands to separate and settle into the configuration he never sees beyond: the long hand pointing at twelve, the short hand pointing at five – each day the same as he cycles home from work to tend to the mutilated remains of a corpse in the basement.
For me, this is somehow a vision of the future, and for a long time, I was that man – but since I didn’t have a basement, I chose to write a novel.
In a country obsessed by the breeding of large rabbits, Belgium is seemingly so boring that I can only wonder at what is going on under the surface. Occasionally, you will get a hint in the newspapers or on television: always something somewhere beyond horrifyingly gruesome.
These, of course, may be only my own invented prejudices. Belgium has created some of the greatest writers and artists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries – and it continues to do so in the Twenty-First Century – although many of them concerned with the darker aspects of the human mind. You need only look at the paintings by Luc Tuymans, each of a sinister nobody, to get some idea of what I mean.
But most of the rest of Belgium’s art wants to lose itself, too; perhaps in some kind of collective unconscious – or at least the art which has caught my eye does.
Surely, the cruelty of King Leopold II’s bestial treatment of the peoples of the Congo has remained? Such human cruelty cannot have changed in so short a period of years. Only its expression has changed.
Which brings me back to the mutilated corpse waiting in the basement as the bureaucrat wheels his bicycle into his small house somewhere in the suburbs of the soul.