Thirty Days review: Alphonse and the human face of Flanders
Annelies Verbeke’s fearless, intelligent novel follows the fortunes of a kindly decorator
Belgian writer Annelies Verbeke: her novel “is a fearless exposé of the world we live in and how we live”
Annelies Verbeke, translated by Liz Waters
Westhoek is a region in the western corner of Flanders, near the French border. It could be described as dull, but then so could many places. For Alphonse, a musician on the retreat from personal pain and betrayal, who has fled the Brussels music scene and is now working as a house decorator, it is becoming a home of sorts. He even likes the flat landscape. Approaching 40, he wants to be content and is, in his way. Cat, his beautiful girlfriend, showers him with her exhausting love, which he enjoys. Most of his clients not only admire his work, they seek his support and friendship, often his approval.
Things tend to happen around Alphonse. He goes into a fast-food joint manned by a Turk, and the young chef, while demonstrating his skill with kitchen knives, cuts off one of own his fingers by mistake. Alphonse quickly takes action and helps the man, careful not to step on the severed finger. He brings it and the victim to hospital. The doctor on duty is unusual. Thrilled that the rescued body part has not been frozen, she urges the patient to have a look: “How often do you get the chance to see the inside of your finger?”
Daily life goes on for Alphonse, who is from Senegal and has lived all over, picking up several languages en route, including three of the four spoken in Flanders. There are random instances of racism, as when a potential client cancels on discovering that our hero, and he is a hero – more than a hero, he is a good man – is not white. Yet Alphonse deals with it all. He likes helping, and people respond to that. They bring their problems to him and air their disputes. Alphonse doesn’t mind, but Cat usually does.
Hilarious and shocking
Belgian writer Annelies Verbeke, born in 1976, writes in Dutch. Her first novel, Slaap! (Sleep!), was published in 2003 and was followed by Reus (Giant) in 2006 and Vissen redden (Saving Fish) in 2009. She has also published two volumes of short stories and has written plays.
Dertig dagen, or Thirty Days, her fourth novel, which was published in 2015, was voted the best Dutch novel of the year by a major Dutch newspaper. It is a bravura performance, engagingly translated by Liz Waters, who conveys the rhythms and mood shifts with impressive ease. Waters is particularly good with the dialogue, which is consistently true to the respective characters.
For all the serious issues it explores, it is also very funny and astute. It is not only a European book, it is a fearless exposé of the world we live in and how we live. Verbeke conveys the essential hostility underlying human behaviour. It is often hilarious, and equally often it is shocking. Most of the characters are not very likable, yet they are real.
Alphonse, though, is different: good-looking, compassionate, sensitive to beauty, he is dyslexic and acceptably perfect. He loves his mother, a jolly matriarch back home in Senegal, whom he often Skypes. There have been difficulties, such as Cat’s illness, but it appears she has been cured. Always in the background are her warring parents, two career diplomats who have an explosive relationship sustained through the years by rarely living together.
Verbeke delights in the weird things people do and the strange twists life takes. Alphonse’s mother used to work for Cat’s parents, and it was she who raised Cat. The girl fell in love with Alphonse long before he realised that he felt the same. Cat lives in fear of losing her man, yet she is not afraid to voice her opinions about the attention he gives to his demanding clients. Cat and Alphonse make love at the slightest provocation. Their romance may sound syrupy, but the novel certainly is not.
Over the course of the month the narrative spans, Alphonse has several jobs, and each one tends to involve him in the tangled existences of a number of crazy people. First, there is the couple with everything, including hated next-door neighbours whom they believe have killed their cat. Once Alphonse finishes the decorating job, he goes next door for another project and a second side of the story.
For much of the fast-moving, fluent and fluid narrative, with its colourful array of troubled characters, it seems Verbeke is shaping a variation of Richard Curtis’s 2003 British romcom, Love Actually, but the increasing racism and the introduction to the existence of Afghan refugees, living in a grim camp that is stretched to danger point when Syrians arrive, makes it all that bit more gritty and topical.
There are also subtle touches which add depth to Alphonse’s characterisation, such as when an old friend comes to visit and it goes so well they wonder how they lost touch. Then Alphonse remembers it was his mean refusal to loan some money that caused the rift.
All the while Verbeke’s canny observations are adding depth not merely to the story but also to the characters. At times she pushes the humour, such as when a slightly distracted writer, staying at an artist’s retreat where Alphonse is painting the staircase, is faced with an angry, bored journalist. The reporter makes clear to the writer exactly what he thinks of her books. “Your books are all about weak, disturbed young women who try to assert themselves but can’t. Do you think you’ll ever move away from that as your subject matter?” The writer panics, and then responds gamely: “I don’t think that is my subject matter, actually. I use men as much as women in my work. I don’t think most of them are actually disturbed. Young? Often they’re not, actually . . . In my last book the youngest character was five and the oldest 80.”
The interview degenerates into a spectacular bowel movement performed by the journalist. On cue, Alphonse comes to the rescue of the writer – who had earlier asked him to read a story. Never one for half-measures, Verbeke has included a previously published, explicit story, The Dietician and the Plasterer, causing Alphonse, who is only human after all, to assume he is one of the characters. Elsewhere, supermarket staff stage pathos-detecting dramas for unsuspecting customers.
Unhappy marriages, deceptions, violent crime and, above all, the human need to connect at some or any level, intrigue Verbeke. Initially, and for much of the journey, an appealingly feelgood narrative, Thirty Days is ultimately far more than just an adroit display of comic timing. It also makes clear that no place is a banal nest of commonplace humanity; darkness and pain are rife, as are random insults. Alphonse is a man always eager to help, and one who merely wants to be content in his spirit.
That life is a complicated, fragile and chance undertaking is the central thesis of this flamboyant, wry narrative, which is unafraid to tell the truth and is too intelligent to falter into a conventional happy ending. Verbeke has written a bold, busy, textured novel, drawing on many elements that often feature in American and British fiction, only she has succeeded at a far higher level. Read it once and you may well read it twice.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent