Thirty Days is a slice of life so compelling and warm that I stayed up far too late to finish it. And was then very miserable: oh, what an ending! Annelies Verbeke’s novel was voted the best of 2015 by thousands of its original Dutch and Flemish readers. It’s out now in a fine English translation by Liz Waters, and was launched at the Edinburgh Book Festival last week as one of the best new books of the month. Consider it also as part of #womenintranslation month.
I read it with waves of happy recognition, as I’ve lived and worked in Flanders for fifteen years, and, despite my rubbish language skills, have picked up the peculiarities of Flemish culture. It’s an odd place, its beaten-down Low Countries topography hosting a tradition of catastrophic modern domestic architecture. I was instantly charmed with Thirty Days because Verbeke’s protagonist Alphonse agrees with me. ‘The cacophony of building styles, so frequently written off as tasteless, has always cheerily endeared him’.
Alphonse is a housepainter and plasterer, building up a new business after moving from Brussels with his girlfriend Cat to the Westhoek, the western corner of Flanders next to the French border. There are war cemeteries everywhere, networked between the spots of villages with country roads. Alphonse drives these roads incessantly, to and from home and work. This total reliance on the car in a flat rural landscape is typically Flemish, but Verbeke misses out the pelotons, incessant clumps of cycling clubs clogging up the lanes and byways.
Alphonse starts work at one house, mentions that he’s about to quote for a job with their neighbours, and stories come tumbling out, about the neighbours copying Els and Dieter’s lives to the extent of having a baby when they do, poisoning their dog out of jealousy, and now painting their house when they do too. There will be even fiercer bonds between the families before this story is over. This is Alphonse’s skill: wherever he goes, people tell him their stories, and he tries to help them by listening, and sometimes giving advice. The stories are also typically Flemish: outrageous, bizarre, cartoonlike in their scope for violence and emotional impact, and totally likely.
Daran the kebab shop owner is a secret ice sculptor, whose triumph is a set of full Samurai body armour in ice, to be modelled naked. Marianne hallucinates about her dead brother so Alphonse carries him out of his room and into the car as an exorcism. Réginald buys a house with a grotesque rape scene in trompe l’oeil on the living-room wall, and asks Alphonse to plaster it over. In between breaks when sanding and varnishing Brigitte’s floor her son Hadrianus teaches him a Maori haka. A contemptuous journalist comes to interview an author at the writing retreat where Alphonse is painting the walls, and defecates on her carpet. She’s been writing an erotic short story, with Alphonse in it, and we read it in full as part of the novel (a story Verbeke already published in a best-selling weekly magazine). The man with butterflies in his phone has been kidnapping them from a butterfly farm. A local priest is killed by arson. There are so many challenging weirdnesses in one small area, but the Westhoek is well-known for its separateness and oddness, and a notoriously difficult dialect.
Alphonse is the glowing heart of this novel, a marvellous, beautiful character through whose eyes we see these bonkers things happening in a calm and beautiful landscape. The plot concerns immigration, since Alphonse and Cat have emigrated from Brussels, and he is a Senegalese immigré whose mother worked for Cat’s diplomatic family. He speaks six languages (including three of Belgium’s four), and his music migrates between different instruments (bass and kora). The stories he hears migrate between families and villages. When Daran accidentally cuts off his finger Brigitte sews it back on at her hospital. Alphonse fetches Brigitte when he meets an Afghan refugee with fight wounds, but because of this medical intervention, and his trips to the fields with boxes and bags of food for the refugees camping rough, stories also migrate about him. Alphonse is the most visible migrant of all because of his glowing black skin. He’s assumed to be a prostitute, a thief, a danger, and an anomaly in the landscape. He isn’t wanted there, but he is needed by the people whose stories he hears because somehow he has the power to change lives.
There is a lot of brutal emotion in this novel, typified by the screaming rages between Cat’s parents, and the utterly bizarre supermarket challenge for its customers to show empathy when confronted by a sobbing checkout boy. There is also copious sex, on and off the page, conveying the passion for life and living that we see through Alphonse. It’s a marvellous novel, so full of incident that it seems impossible that all this could happen in only thirty days.