By JOHN MARTIN
Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans read from his works at the Library on Sept. 18. Mr. Hertmans, one of Flanders' most prolific and eclectic contemporary authors, read an essay and selections from his poetry as part of the Library's New Literature from Europe series. It is a joint project of the member states of the European Union and the European Commission in Washington.
Mr. Hertmans is a professor of art criticism and textual analysis at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent in Flanders. He has published two novels, two volumes of collected short stories and 10 volumes of poetry, in addition to three volumes of collected essays on literature and philosophy. He is also a devotee of contemporary performing art, a jazz enthusiast and an active jazz musician. His visit was arranged by Margrit B. Krewson, the Library's German/Dutch area specialist.
The speaker dismissed the glowing comments by Bart Hendrickx, attaché of the Flemish Community, with modest good humor. "I'm just a guy who can't make up his mind what to do," he said.
Mr. Hertmans writes in Dutch, the language of Flanders, the northern state of Belgium. Situated on the North Sea, Flanders straddles the linguistic border between the Netherlands to the north and Wallonia, the southern state of Belgium. The Flemish, Mr. Hertmans said, "speak a Germanic language from a Latin perspective."
He read an essay, "The Tail of the Magpie" (Literary Review, Farleigh Dickinson University, Vol. 40, no. 3, 1997), that explores the relationship between ideology, violence and land. The story begins in his childhood in postwar Europe, where, influenced by the novels of Karl May describing the American West, he pretended to be an American Indian defending the wild park surrounding the old castle his father had bought. Neighbors, the owners of unused, manicured lawns, dumped their trash there. Older, louder boys with cap guns, playing cowboys, stomped through it. But he wanted to be an Indian.
"Easily I immersed myself in the other, the one on the other side, the foreigner who was the [Indian]. There was the excitement, the real, secret life, which I alone understood."
The essay reaches its climax when the youthful author surprises a younger boy trespassing on his sacred ground and beats him until he begins to bleed and cry. Only then does he pause to ask the boy to explain his presence. Years later, he expresses the desire to return to those woods, to see them again through the eyes of the beaten boy. "Because, at the time, I couldn't think through the confusion, the oppressive realization that I was a cowboy precisely because I thought myself an Indian."
Mr. Hertmans read in Dutch selected verses from his most recent volume of poetry, Francesco's Paradox, a 14-poem cycle modeled on the sonnets of Petrarch. That work is now being transformed into an opera by the Brussels composer Walter Hus, whose music concluded the program.
Mr. Martin is in the Copyright Office.