A Flemish author’s debt to Dublin: bedsits, bars and Barrytown

Jan Vantoortelboom spent six months studying in Dublin, was taught to laugh again by Roddy Doyle and fell in love with Irish literature

Jan Vantoortelboom in Dublin: Since the untimely death of my mother, at the age of 42, not one book had had the power to make me laugh again. The Commitments destroyed that curse

Jan Vantoortelboom in Dublin: Since the untimely death of my mother, at the age of 42, not one book had had the power to make me laugh again. The Commitments destroyed that curse

 

When I took off for Dublin, somewhere in the dying days of 1996, I had no place to stay. But that couldn’t spoil the fun. I was more than ready to study six months at Trinity College and having arrived there, walked through the impressive front gate, witnessed the rape of a duck on a patch of campus lawn and waited for some time, I was told by a friendly lady with a face like a cutting board they could not provide any accommodation either, but that I should try Avalon House on Dame Street.

Luckily, that hostel had a bed left. So, the first two weeks of my memorable stay in Ireland I slept in a bunker crammed with wobbly bunk beds and a neighbour crunching crisps during the night. Eventually, I got tired of that and went in search of a decent room. I found one in a house on Belgrave Square. It was moist and mouldy and wrapped me in a skin disease that stuck to me like dried-up shite on the soles of my Sunday shoes. After two and a half months or so I contacted the landlord to tell him I was leaving, went in search for another place, and ended up in a sort of half basement on Upper Rathmines Road. To lower monthly costs, I shared that room with a guy from Laos and, on occasion, an Indian fella in a baggy pair of trousers who had a pair of utterly worn Adidas and claimed to be a heart surgeon on a world trip. The guy from Laos cooked, the Indian talked, and I ate. And read.

Bizarrely, interesting things happened: I was eating a burger somewhere in O’Connell street when a shabbily dressed punk pushed through the glass doors, came over to my table, bowed and shouted ‘Don’t call me a tosser, you tosser!,’ then left. A few days later I received a head butt straight on the nose in the Harp, because I stood in the way of some stocky, closely-cropped Irishman, even though I was leaning against a pillar, enjoying my beer and there was plenty of place to walk around me.

To top it all, I found myself in the back of a police van after a night out, because during the long walk back to my half basement, I gave in to the urge to urinate and did that leisurely against a big inviting wall. That wall belonged to a church, I was told. The policeman convinced me that it was an unacceptable thing to do. I pretended not to understand, kept confusing him with a primitive concoction of West-Flemish dialect, persisted in creating some kind of Babylonian confusion. They kicked me out of the van. I washed my grievances away with a pint in the Bleeding Horse. More of these fascinating fairytale-like things happened to me in those months in Dublin, but this is not the place nor the time to elaborate on them.

All in all, it is with a deep affection, nostalgia and a sense of lost adventure that I think back on my six-month study-stay in Dublin. It was, by far, the best period of my student years.

One night, while the Asian guy (named Tao) was cooking and the Indian fella (Radjanish) was chattering away, I leapt from the bed, book in hand, and shrieked with laughter. Radjanish fell dead silent and Tao stopped stirring. But I relaxed with a chuckle and got back to reading silently, leaving them in the dark. It had happened and I knew it. A book had made me laugh.

Since the untimely death of my mother, at the age of 42, from a cancer that may be hereditary (God, I hope not) not one book had had the power to make me laugh again. The Commitments destroyed that curse. The Van and The Snapper blew what was left of it into another galaxy. Roddy Doyle. It was the beginning of a life-long, deeply personal attachment to his work. It is that fertile combination of comedy and tragedy that dragged me towards it, the racy dialogues full of lust for life, by recognisable people. I, too, come from a working-class background.

Home again, I bought all his novels, wrote my final dissertation on the Barrytown Trilogy, The Woman Who Walked into Doors and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. And to this day, the only novel I have reread like five times is A Star Called Henry. Through all the hardships and adversity in his young life, he stays alive, more than that, he likes life, is life, and never for a moment doubts he will not make it. I wanted to be Henry. I was Henry. Probably not that handsome, but all the same.

When there was no Doyle novel to read, and I got feverishly uneasy, I read Sebastian Barry, another great writer. I read A Long Long Way three times. It is the epic quality of Barry’s storytelling that touched me, the poetry in the tragedy. Then Dermot Bolger came along (whom I met once in Ypres, together with Hugo Hamilton, and had a short chat with), a crazily funny man. After giving a derailingly detailed five-minute answer to a question put to him by one of the eight listeners, he asked afterwards if the woman had understood his answer, to which she replied with a full-mouthed “yes”. Dermot then said: “I am glad you did, because I didn’t.” Again, I shrieked with laughter.

Many more writers followed: John Banville, Seamus Deane, Anne Enright, Joseph O’Connor, Jennifer Johnston, Edna O’Brien … The list is just too long. So long that it became awkward. When I got published myself and I was invited to talk about the books I had written, I kept shouting proudly that it all started in Ireland. The wild things that happened to me there, the walled-in emotions that found their way out. Through a book. But people started asking questions whether I had read the latest novel of this or that great Dutch/Flemish writer. And I always found myself answering with a shameful “no”. The past couple of years, though, I have tried to make amends for that lack of knowledge that, honestly, came about through the greatness of and my fascination for Irish literature.

The only thing I can hope for now is that, with the English translation of my second novel His Name is David, I may kindle a fire in the heart of some Irish readers for a personal attachment to our Flemish Literature, which, truth be told, is also a literature to be proud of.

His Name is David is published this month by World Editions. Jan  reads with with Aifric Campbell and Annelies Verbeke at Ireland meets Flanders: A World Editions Salon in Waterstone’s, Piccadilly, London on Tuesday, November 29th, at 7pm

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