By Karen Harper
If anyone doubts that the International Thriller Writers is International, this interview with European author Bob Van Laerhoven should help erase those doubts. He has lived and worked all over the world, and his latest prize-winning novel is now available in the US. Van Laerhoven calls himself a Belgian (Flemish) author, but his work is universal.
What is your book about?
BAUDELAIRE’S REVENGE is a crossover between literature and the mystery-novel, mixing a tale of murder and extraneous passions with literary history and history. It goes back to Paris, September 1870, and the Franco-Prussian war. The first Prussian shrapnel hits the city. The workers are starving to death. The nobility seeks refuge in orgies and séances. Artists denounce the impending civil war in France and call for unity in defense against the Prussian armies. The Parisians are trapped in their besieged city.
However, the horror of war is surpassed by a series of gruesome and mysterious murders that makes them forget about everyday reality. Commissioner Lefèvre, a veteran from the French-Algerian war, has to resolve these lurid crimes. On or near each of the corpses, verses out of the contentious anthology THE FLOWERS OF EVIL of the recently deceased Charles Baudelaire are found, written in his exact handwriting. Commissioner Lefèvre’s investigation uncovers a plot with ramifications extending as far as the court of the emperor, Napoleon III. It also leads him to discover a bizarre family secret with far-reaching consequences. And to the knowledge that evil is everywhere, and he is not excluded.
BAUDELAIRE’S REVENGE has a unique premise. How did you come to use the French poet Charles Baudelaire—who was already dead at the time of your story—and why did you choose the thriller genre?
To answer this shrewd question, I have to go back in time, more than four decades. At seventeen, by chance—by Fate?—I picked up a volume of poems in the library of the small Flemish village near to the Dutch border where I grew up. It was the Dutch translation of LES FLEURS DU MAL (THE FLOWERS OF EVIL) by Charles Baudelaire. I read those thrilling, enticing verses and I was wowed. I bought the French edition to be able to read those enthralling poems, describing a universe of weird, entangled passions in the original language they were written in. I remember clearly that I read LES FLEURS DU MAL at night in bed with the help of a French-Dutch dictionary. I also began to read more about Baudelaire’s twisted and dramatic life, and I vowed that I would become a writer and publish a book about him. At twenty-seven, I tried for the first time, but after a few months I had to admit that the topic was, at that moment, way above my head. I was just a beginner, having recently published my first novel NIGHT GAMES. The complexity of Baudelaire’s themes and the decadence of his life, defied my longing to write a novel about him. I moved on, published more and more books, and, to be honest, forgot about the project of that seventeen year old boy who dreamed of becoming an author, a very uncommon goal in my social class: my parents were poor working people.
At fifty-five, I moved to a new house and again, by chance—by Fate—I found the dusty manuscript I had written when I was much younger. FENCING was the title of that long forgotten and uncompleted script. Leafing through it with a feeling of nostalgia, I remembered it was a kind of mystery tale set in Paris in the nineteenth century. There were a lot of gloomy characters, but the story itself was like a maze that led to nowhere. But I read the verses of Charles Baudelaire I had used in that old text and I remembered my fascination for this depraved yet hugely talented poet. There and then came a spark, a feeling I was on to something. I began to write a totally different story but with the same threatening and somber aura, a tale of poets, murderers and thieves in besieged Paris in 1870 where the starving workers were rumored to eat their dead while the nobility overindulged in a frenzy of orgies and feasts. Slowly but irresistibly, BAUDELAIRE’S REVENGE took form. It was only later that I noticed I hadn’t chosen the thriller genre to tell my story, the genre had chosen me. I read thrillers, sure, but also a lot of literature and non-fiction. I never know what genre—to be honest, I don’t really like all those labels—a new novel will choose. My two recent novels, BLACK WATER and ALEJANDRO’S LIE, have been labeled “literature” over here in the Low Lands. They’re not historical novels either.
Your pair of detectives, the Paris police commissioner and inspector, are friends with a past. Why did you use both men to solve these strange serial murders? How do these men balance each other?
Sometimes I get mail from readers who are upset with the death-wish—or at least the obsession with death—of both characters. Having read a lot about PTSD traumas, I incorporated some symptoms in Commissioner Lefèvre and Inspector Bouveroux. Many years ago, they both fought in the Franco-Algerian war and they still feel the emotional consequences of that period. I was a traveling writer from 1990 to 2003. I visited many regions in conflict, and I’ve met people with PTSD. Their obsession with death was often very noticeable—as if they had withdrawn themselves from the world and created one of their own. But underneath their detached, even icy, behavior I sensed pent-up emotions. It was this glum aura I wanted to convey via the police officers in BAUDELAIRE’S REVENGE. Lefèvre and Bouveroux have witnessed, and participated in, atrocities that haunt them, but the attentive reader will sense the love, the compassion, and the empathy they so desperately want to share. Due to their experiences they have lost that ability which makes them truly dramatic characters.
This novel not only won the prestigious Hercule Poirot Prize but has been lauded with numerous great reviews. Many reviewers (who are no doubt savvy mystery readers) admit they guessed the wrong villain. Without giving anything away, can you comment on how a mystery/thriller author can accomplish this tricky task?
Easy: there are no tricks. I never ever draw a storyboard. I never know where I will end when I start writing a new novel. Although I have published more than thirty books in the Netherlands and Belgium, the art of writing for me has remained the same all these years: I’m standing on a cliff high above a teeming sea and I dive in, not knowing how deep the water is. It’s not the plot that carries away most of my efforts. The plot is my vessel. It will float if I let it be, if I’m brave enough to follow it, even if the direction seems ridiculous at that moment. It is style that needs my greatest focus and efforts. I’m a fond admirer of stylists like Flaubert, Kafka, Irène Némirovsky, Curzio Malaparte and the American author John Cheever, to name just a few. Cheever’s diaries are masterpieces of literature. If I could reach style-wise to Cheever’s knees, I would be overjoyed. But there are others too, for instance the great André Baillon. Summarized: the plot materializes when you let the story follow its path, but telling it stylishly is innumerable hard work.
Your dossier reveals a writer/journalist who has traveled greatly, many times to dangerous locales such as Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iran, and Iraq. Does this background give you insight into the tumultuous, dangerous 1870 setting for BAUDELAIRE’S REVENGE?
In all the war-torn countries I visited, there was a constant: war corrupts, war degrades, war turns a man into something not entirely human. War is always accompanied by money, sexual frenzy, and drugs. Freud already wrote about the loss of all morality in young soldiers, and the swift destruction of taboos, ethics, and social restrictions due to war conditions. I’ve seen the psychopaths who could decide if you lived or died with a snap of their fingers, talked to them, ate their food, felt their eyes resting upon me. There are people who actually wear a palpable aura of aggressive destruction around them.
In Sarajevo, at the height of the Serbian siege when shells hit the city from the surrounding Serbian batteries on the hills 24/7, I talked with a local warlord and drug smuggler. He looked me in the eye when he said, “War is like a mother to me.” I believed him. There are predators in human disguise who will commit any atrocity to satisfy their blood thirst and the demands of their ego. Oh, they will tell you they murder because of religion, because of old political feuds, because of mismatched borders, because of this, because of that, but in reality they only glorify in their might to decide over life and death. Does that sound exaggerated to you? Just look at IS. The IS-“warriors” will blare that they want a “pure” Islamic State where the sharia is upheld. Blah blah blah. They just want to murder, to rape, to loot. They have to feed their solipsistic ego. I’ve met types like that in many countries. Give them an ideology—the IS-version of Islam is an ideology and has in fact nothing to do with religion—and they are capable of every outrage you can imagine.
Yes, the things I’ve witnessed in my days as a traveling writer influence the background of my novels. I truly would like to write a humorous novel once, and if I live long enough I will try, but for the moment I can’t escape whom I have become and what I’ve witnessed; it seeps through into my novels.
You have written in many formats and genres—biographies, letters, columns, articles, and now this mystery/thriller. Do you have a favorite format, and is there spillover in the themes of your writing?
I am a small and stocky guy, armed with an overload of curiosity. Therefore I explore a maze of themes. In Belgium, there was—and to an extent there still is—a strict partition between literature and genre-literature. I think that in Europe this partition was, and is, a bit more rigorous than in Anglo-Saxon countries. From the start of my career, I didn’t want to participate in that outworn labeling of what was high art and what was low art. I wanted to mix things up and write spicy, thrilling, yet thoughtful and even philosophical novels. In my view, literature is able to research the deepest crevices of our minds. Literature is an important tool in the continuous quest of understanding the human beast better.
In a review of THE HOOK OF A BOOK, Erin Al-Mehari was impressed with how naturally your writing flowed. All writers strive for this. Can you give us some idea of your research and writing process?
The mind—at least mine—is a beehive. The trick is to capture what’s going on in your brain in as much detail as possible and then follow those leads. While you’re writing about people different from yourself, researching all kinds of events, mores, social habits, situations, et cetera, you’re in fact in intimate contact with your brain, a different contact than in everyday life. The brain is open. It receives. That contact guides me in my research which, I imagine, will seem erratic for an outsider.
My research is an expedition, a search for the Holy Grail. I never know where it will lead me. I’ve learned to trust impulses, to delve deep and to listen to the brain. Oh, I will encounter a detour now and then, but I try to remain attentive to my inner self. If I can do that, the answer, the direction, the mood, and the tone will come.
It’s the same for style. It’s your rhythm you carry within you. It has been there all along and it waits to be discovered. You can coax it out of its lair by reading great stylists, but ultimately it must become your voice, not the imitation of someone else’s. When you’ve found that voice and have given it the opportunity to blossom by trial and error, you’ll notice that it will change from novel to novel, according to the theme, the setting, the mood of that book. But it will still be your voice. Just like a singer’s voice, your rhythm—your style—will have many scales, but it will still be recognizable as being yours. That’s the flow we call “natural.”
Baudelaire wrote, “An artist only answers to himself.” Is that true for you, or are you aware of an audience as you write?
A very interesting and confronting question. The answer is yes and no. I have been a professional author for more than twenty-two years in a small-language community. Flanders has only five million people. Especially in the beginning of my authorship, I had to make compromises. I’ve published a few books—mostly prequels to television-series; no sequels—that I probably wouldn’t have written if I didn’t need the money. But, as the years went by, those commitments became sparse and during the last years they’ve disappeared altogether. In the books that I wanted—had—to write, I tend to be stubborn and do my own thing, sometimes against commercial rationale. An example: although it hurts me—as a man, not as a writer—when I write harsh sex scenes that are sometimes are necessary in my novels, I write them anyway.
Why do I write about the destructive power of sex? Because I have seen and spoken with the raped and desperate women of the Bosnian enclave Srebrenica during the Bosnian war, and it hurt me; I’ve seen and spoken to drugged rapists in Liberia during the civil war in the nineties, and they hurt me; when I was fifty, for five years I had a relationship with a much younger woman, very sensitive and intelligent, who had been abused by her father in her early teens and I’ve seen, felt, and deplored the bitter and sad consequences of such unnatural male lust; I’ve seen how an incest victim has to struggle all her life to become herself, and not an object of lust, and be able to welcome the healing power of loving sex. That’s why I try to delve into the warped sexual needs of the male psyche—I know how much damage those twisted needs can do.
As a result of this example and the complexity of my themes, my crossover between literature and the mystery novel is not “simple”; the novels are not “easy reads.” But I do hope that they give something back in return: if we don’t try to shine a light into our most hidden vices, if we don’t try to analyze and to understand them, mankind will never be able to evolve into something better. In my view, literature has become one of the last vestiges of art where the artist can dig profoundly into the human condition. There are novels that only focus on recreation and distraction. Fine. They are necessary in our tensed-up societies. But let us also read novels that ask fundamental questions, that explore the human condition in every corner, be it light or dark. You see, I’m repeating myself. This theme is obviously very dear to me.
And, as a last reflection on your question, please don’t forget that also the great Baudelaire himself made amendments. He wrote and published eulogies for the renowned writers of his time in the hope that he would be accepted by the literary elite. At the same time, he tried to hide his sick sexual urges behind pompous motto’s like “The artist only answers to himself.” As a poet, he was a genius; as a man, he was to be pitied. I’ve always found the difference between both fascinating.
Can you share with us something about another novel you may be working on now or are other demands taking your time?
I’m proud to announce that I just finished a new novel: DE SCHADUW VAN DE MOL (THE SHADOW OF THE MOLE), my thirty-fifth book. It was a fascinating but also exhausting project. The novel is set in the Argonne-region of France in 1916, but also in 1895 and 1911 in Paris and in Vienna. Breuer, one of Freud’s teachers, plays a role in the novel, as does Anna O, the famous first female patient of Breuer and Freud. World War I serves as a dramatic background for the novel. During heavy fighting between the German forces and the French troops, French sappers discover an unconscious man in civilian clothes in one of the old mine tunnels of the Argonne. It turns out that he has completely lost his memory and thinks he is dead (The Syndrome of Cotard really does exist.) The military brass are certain that he is a soldier who has gone AWOL and is putting on a show of “shellshock” to evade a court martial, but the young doctor at the front, Denis Michel, himself traumatized by losing an arm from a shrapnel blast, thinks there’s more to the story.
Certainly, this appears to be the case when it turns out that the patient writes in écriture automatique—automatic writing—a very strange story. Soon, Michel descends into a psychic maze that becomes an obsession for him. Of course, there’s much more to the story, but this short teaser may give you an indication. The Dutch version is due to come out end of November of this year. The English version of the manuscript should be ready beginning of 2015. I hope that the novel can be edited in the US in 2016. In the mean time, for 2015, I will submit RETURN TO HIROSHIMA, a novel that has been called my “magnum opus” by many reviewers in the Netherlands and Belgium. Brian Doyle has finished a fine translation. We’ll see. The American market is different from the European one, and I still have to learn a lot. That’s a nice situation for an author of sixty-one who has published so many books: he can learn until the minute he drops dead.
Flemish author Bob Van Laerhoven made his debut in 1985 with NACHTSPEL- NIGHT GAME. He writes colourful, kaleidoscopic novels in which the fate of the individual is closely related to broad social transformations. Van Laerhoven became a full-time author in 1991. As a freelance travel writer, he explored conflicts and trouble-spots across the globe from 1990 to 2004. In 2007, he won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best mystery novel of the year with DE WRAAK VAN BAUDELAIRE. The English translation BAUDELAIRE’S REVENGE was edited in the US in 2014. His novels have also been translated in French.
To learn more about Bob, please visit his website.
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