Monday 9 November 2009

'a duet with absence'

Madame Verona Comes Down The Hill
by Dimitri Verhulst

After a childhood spent in foster care and institutes Verhulst wrote stories and novels that dealt with his youth, finally breaking through with a novel called Problemski Hotel which focused on the lives of residents in an asylum-seeker's centre in Belgium. Changing tack completely with this novella he has written something that reads like a fable of old, a paean to love and loneliness, a book which seems to have a random structure but which slowly and successfully assembles itself into a portrait of an isolated community.

The Madame Verona of the title has lived with her husband, Mr Potter, in a house that sits on a hill overlooking the village of Oucwegne, 'a gutter in the earth's crust'. Brought together by music, he a conductor, she a pianist, they have lived in an artistic isolation which many in the village expected to end when Mr Potter hung himself from a tree in the forest, unwilling to allow his fatal illness to run its course. But his final act beforehand had been to cut and collect as much firewood as he could, allowing his wife to perform one last act in his memory. The novella starts almost at its ending.

It had seemed like an inexhaustible supply, but that morning in February Madame Verona had laid the last log on the fire. The last piece of firewood that he too had held in his splinter-pierced hands. There had been less and less to hold that he too had held, because if things don't rot, they break, and when she pushed that last log deeper into the fire with the poker, she decided to go down the hill. As a symbol, a meaningless act set opposite a meaningless fact, but more beautiful.

Her descent towards the village is an important event, especially for the men. Not only is she an uncommonly beautiful woman but Oucwegne is a village beset by a kind of curse; all the children born, bar one, have been male. The men have had to content themselves with trips to the nearest town and its whorehouses to satisfy their yearning for coupling but for many men the return of Madame Verona heralds the chance to capture the highest prize. When it is known that Madame has had the tree from which her husband hanged himself cut down it seems that she has finished her mourning and will return to the village soon.

Silence is often more intense after its return. When a tree accepts its defeat. creaks and capsizes, all life flies up and off. There's crowing and cawing, branches crack, it rains feather and down, rabbits flee to their underground shelters. All things considered the titan's contact with the actual ground is quiet, people generally expect it to be louder. It's mainly the rest of the forest that kicks up a fuss and makes a racket. And once the creatures have assessed the damage, silence comes back. Eyes and leaves turn to the light that has never shone so brightly here. A place has come free, the struggle can begin, because the space will be occupied by something or someone. It's like that for trees, it's like that for people.

But she has plans for the tree. She instructs a luthier to fashion her husband's beloved instrument, the cello, from the wood. The tree having been freshly cut, it will take time for the wood to dry and season but Madame has not only patience but enough firewood to last her the twenty year wait.

That sense of community I mentioned is created in several ways. There is the social aspect, the village united in its love of drink and table football, social standing and grievances worked out on that enclosed green surface. There are the professional/personal relationships, for example the nearest doctor being a journey away the village have tended to rely on the vet for their medical needs. The fact that many of the older men of the village knew her as the little daughter of the sweet-shop owner adding to their embarrassment when it comes to examination. There is also a great section that explains the time when a cow was made mayor, an episode that typifies that feel of fable and the skill with which Verhulst is able to say so much about village life with so little. At only 145 generously-spaced pages this book does what all good fables should: keeps its strong themes running throughout and fills your mind with images and character. After such a volte-face it is intriguing to think what Verhulst might write next. I see that he has also written poetry and one other standout moment for me was a verse written by Mr Potter for Madame. All of which makes Verhulst seem like a Belgian Adam Foulds. I wonder what he'd make of that.


John Self 9 November 2009 at 11:47  

Hm, what an interesting-sounding book, and one I'd never heard of. Hats off to you, sir, for bringing it to our attention.

So now we know who the Belgian Adam Foulds is - what we all need to know now is who's the Austrian Steve Toltz.

Annabel Gaskell 9 November 2009 at 15:00  

I've just started this short novel, so I've deliberately not read your review, but I have a good feeling that the story will turn out to be a great little book, and that your title 'a duet with absence' will some it up perfectly.

William Rycroft 9 November 2009 at 22:34  

I can't really take any credit for finding the book. The publisher Portobello Books has made it available on the Amazon Vine programme, which is how you came across it I'm guessing Annabel, and I took a punt based on the basic description, the length and, dare I say it, the cover. Sometimes that works out!

I do try to pick quotations from the book in question as titles for my reviews and find something that sums up the feel of the book for me. I hope after you've finished it Annabel you still feel as positive as you do now, I think you will.

Annabel Gaskell 11 November 2009 at 07:50  

Yes - I got it through Amazon Vine too. It is a little gem - and I could so clearly visualise it, it's crying out to be made into an arty little film! I'll be writing my thoughts in full soon.

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