My Little War
The period between Flemish author Louis Paul Boon’s birth in 1912 and the publication of his post-modern masterpiece Mijn kleine oorlog (My Little War) in 1947 saw Belgium ravaged by some of the worst wartime carnage that the European continent had experienced in centuries. Even as Hitler’s advancing wehrmacht sent 25% of the Belgian population fleeing over the French border, memories remained fresh of the brutal German occupation of 1914—including its defining atrocity, the sacking of Leuven, during which the city’s library of 300,000 medieval books was burned and the entire populace expelled. So to post-war Flemish readers, Boon’s peculiarly brilliant novel appeared in the wake of two large wars, challenging a literary orthodoxy that tried to make sense of these conflagrations.
Mijn kleine oorlog is decidedly not an anti-war novel—at least, not in the sense of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa or Rolland’s Clérambault, the sort of predecessors to which Boon is likely referring to when he writes to question the archetypal “great writer” who rises up to present the world with “his Book About the Great War—with capital letters.” Instead, the volume might be described as an anti-anti-war novel . . . if it even is a novel at all. A better description yet might be an anti-anti-war sketchbook. For what Boon has done in thirty-three brief vignettes is collect snippets of overheard conversations, press reports, unsubstantiated rumors and “personal” experiences to generate a montage of the highly subjective experience of one ordinary laborer-turned-POW-turned-writer during the Second World War. Yet even the volume’s subjectively is overtly orchestrated; this is not Virginia Woolf or James Joyce trying to capture the subtle workings of the human mind, but rather an author reminding the reader that he is feigning to do so. In one noteworthy example, after referring to multiple characters as “what’s-his-name” and “what’s-her-name,” Boon suddenly pretends to have recalled one of their names: “What’s her name came too,” he writes. “What was her name again the one who was hit in the head with something the other day and died, who used to get so furious and denounce us as pro-German when we said the war would last five years . . . it was Mrs. Lammens!” Of course, the reader recognizes that Boon has not achieved this recollection in the moment. Rather, Boon uses this device to mock his modernist forebears and to remind the reader of his own pretenses.
In Boon’s fictional universe, which occupies only a few small streets in a Belgian village, everything is true because nothing is true. For instance, Boon describes a fellow soldier pausing during a retreat through an abandoned dairy, with German gunners close on his heels, to rescue a goldfish from an overturned bowl. When Boon questions this “what’s-his-name,” the infantryman replies, “Imagine you lived in that dairy, and got back after you’d run away, wouldn’t you be glad to see that your goldfish were still alive? Well?” Lest we read too much into this tale of minor heroism, several sentences later, Boon announces: “Actually, I made those goldfish up, that’s what stories are for.” He then begins his next vignette with the caveat: “But this isn’t made up . . .” Who can really say? For an author who writes, “there’s never any need to cook up any fantasy; the truth is fantastic enough,” no moment in Mijn kleine oorlog is ever definitively truth or definitively fantasy. Even the identification of the narrator, Boontje, with the author remains intentionally unclear. Boon writes that “If I’ve usually said ‘I’ in this book, it was just a way of presenting things, what I really meant was ‘you’—you, you poor man, exploited, scorned, spat upon, pacified with empty promises, who didn’t have the courage to stand up for yourself . . .” In the current age of Thomas Pynchon and “truthiness,” we may take this approach for granted. To Boon’s Flemish audience of 1947, blurring the lines between Truth and fiction in this speciously cavalier manner may have touched too close to home, and initial sales were disappointing. After all, as depicted by Boon, many Flemings played both sides during the occupation; distinguish the heroes of the Belgian Resistance from the collaborators and Black Shirts remains an unfinished process to this day.
Critic Annie van den Oever has catalogued Boon’s early influences, most notably Franz Kafka and the Femish poet and nationalist Paul van Ostaijen. According to van den Oever, Boon “saw himself as a link in a chain” of what she terms the “grotesque literary tradition”—those early twentieth century writers who broke open “the traditionally monologic novel.” Thanks to Anne Visser and the Dalkey Archive, we have a translation of Annie van den Oever’s seminal 2007 biography of Boon, Het leven zelf (Life Itself), which holds forth the promise of revealing this link to English-speaking audiences. Paul Vincent’s translation, which follows the more popular Dutch second edition, is as clear and funny and nuanced as the original, and does an impressive job of conveying many of the text’s linguistic jokes and puns into English.
Despite its complex literary agenda—or possibly on account of it—My Little War also stands out as a deeply moving, often unsettling work of fiction. Boon clearly recognizes that an author cannot challenge his readers’ ideas unless he also engages their emotions. His motley crew of what’s-his-names, including “the very good and very amusing and very ugly Albertine Spaens” and the cigar-smoking turncoat shoe manufacturer Swaem and the tragic Canadian girl with a harelip, are drawn with such precision that one feels one can recognize one’s own acquaintances in his depictions. In fact, Boon reflects near the end of the volume, “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—although he had only a symbolic Mr. Swaem in mind.” There lies the magic of Boon’s technique: His falsehoods are more convincing than the truths of traditional fiction.
In a section entitled “Self-Defense,” Boon muses: “I’d like to suggest to my publisher that he set up an ‘Everyone Write their Own Little War’ contest—“First prize a pipe!” (Note the allusion to Magritte’s La trahison des images.) To a significant degree, we now live in that world today: Anyone can—and many authors do—write their “own little war” narratives for the Internet. One can easily imagine Boon looking down upon us, smoking his own pipe and grinning.