The Book of Geuzen by Louis Paul Boon.

Posted: August 16, 2013 in History/Philosophy
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The past years I’ve taken the habit of reading one book of Louis Paul Boon a year. By now I read pretty much all of them. Although he’s a great writer, he doesn’t write the kind of books that you read with a Dan Brownish-speed. Currently, I’m reading Het Geuzenboek (The Book of the Geuzen). I won’t write a review or a synopsis of this book, but I do want to say a few words about the genre of the historical novel.

Unlike other historical novels, this one isn’t about a fictional character in a real historical world (don’t shoot me on the unwary use of “real historical world,” I’m well-aware of its problems). The book starts with the birth of the emperor Charles the Fifth in Ghent. Boon tells the tale in the same chronology and structure as history books do. He doesn’t add characters, he doesn’t create a storyline (unless we consider the way ordinary history books represent the past as having a storyline). The only difference is his own writing style, the choice of words and some extra details. I assume most of the non-Belgians haven’t read Boon, so allow me to translate a little piece of the book. There is no reason for me to pick this specific passage other than I’m currently on this page. Here you go:

“Far away from Rome, in the month of May, from the pulpit they could mislead the believers in Flanders and say it were Lutherean farmers of Germany who locked up the pope in Rome and killed priests and raped nuns. In this way, they stirred up the hate against those who read the Bible, the word of God, and the inquisition could strike as they pleased, enrich and amuse themselves.” (p. 83)

Boon has read a great deal of academic articles and books before writing this book. Factually speaking, you can’t point out a lot of mistakes. But in his descriptions of the emperor with his “hanging lip” and the pope with his “stinking hemorroids,” he adds some gore here and there. Many of these little dirty details are for a historian often hard or impossible to check. I’m not asking whether his details are based on hard facts. The question is this: If we stick to what we can actually proof  within the methods of history, aren’t we getting an even more obscured and even false image of the historical period? Everything becomes too clean. Emperor X attacks king Y while pope Z is writing the catholic world to organize a crusade. War without cruelty, blood and stinking gore. Not only does the story got more amusing to read in Boons way, it might even be truer.

The downside is obvious, it’s not a mystery why especially the popes, cardinals and emperor are stinking, horny and rude assholes in this book. Louis Paul Boon was a socialist in mid 20th century Flanders. A region with a very huge influence of the Catholic Church and a recent history of a very early industrial revolution and all its social deprivations with it. What if somebody else would write about the same events? Would her background be influential enough to change parts of history? And if so, would this be problematic? Or should we see these different views on history just like the multiplicity of views of the historical actors would have on their own situation?

I think it’s an interesting way to look at the past. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to this kind of history books, but it definitely adds something to the dry books that we’re used to! Ordinary history books inform us about kings, popes and batlles. Yet, they often seem to forget that kings and popes needed to take a shit through a hole without running water and battles were fought in the mud.


Recommendations: The Chapel Road (Kapellekesbaan) and Het Geuzenboek (although I’m not sure if there is an English version).


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