The Latecomer by Dimitri Verhulst


I’m happy that in this novel, Dimitri Verhulst once again concentrates on the individual rather than enlarging on the topic of how humanity as a whole is rotten beyond redemption – I always like his more personal work better than his world-encompassing ones. (Of course, I have no idea if there’s a clear sense of direction in Verhulst’s life-work, as most of his work isn’t available in any of the languages I speak.)

The Latecomer’s protagonist is 74-year-old Désiré, who’s had enough of all this stuff we conveniently refer to as life (most of all, he’s had enough of his conventionally frigid dragon of a wife, Monika), but then he has a brainwave and because at the age of 74 there just aren’t that many escape routes available anymore, he decides to put on a charade: he pretends that he suffers from dementia so that he can end up in a nursing home and finally be free from the nuisance of the outside world (mostly from Monika).

From Désiré’s flashback sections we slowly learn about his youthful dreams (I hardly need to say what happened to those) and we also learn about the details of his life with Monika, with special emphasis on the tensions, betrayals, and lies of said life. (As a bonus, you can also learn how to pretend to have Alzheimer’s disease – this might come in handy one day.)

And Désiré’s style is so deliciously dark and cynical that it cracks me up. Once, for instance, he’s contemplating his funeral arrangements and he says he doesn’t give a damn what kind of funeral he gets, the only thing is that he’d prefer not to lie next to Monika in his death as they’d spent their lives lying next to each other like dead bodies, so there’s no need to continue with this after death.

Verhulst is again at the height of his cynicism, and this time I feel it’s not just random bitterness thrown all over the place, but something well-warranted. Who wouldn’t be cynical and who wouldn’t take refuge in pitch-dark humor, after all, when he realizes at the age of 74 that he’s probably about to die pretty soon and that all this – life – was simply stupid and meaningless.

But – and I’m especially happy about this – it seems to me again that Verhulst actually likes humans, or if he doesn’t like them, at least he has lots of empathy and compassion for them. Because sure, we can laugh at all the nosy pensioners living in Désiré’s street who suddenly must mow their lawn and check their post box every minute on the morning when the family prepares to transport Désiré to the nursing home – but we also feel that the pensioners don’t just gawk around because they are nosy – they are also contemplating how they might be the next ones to end up there.

Verhulst here is also concerned with the questions of what makes a life meaningful and worth living. And at first glance, Désiré’s life is nothing special – he’s had an OK time in his life, working in a library, drinking red wine, feeding the birds – but the need for something else was ever-present in his life, and so was the awareness that probably he shouldn’t have married such a woman as Monika, a woman insanely and exclusively concerned about the look of things, and that he probably could have done lots of other things instead. (Just an example to illustrate Monika’s habits – being obsessed with recording the family idyll in the most perfect way imaginable, she once makes Désiré blow the candles on his birthday cake 9 times until she can capture the moment satisfactorily.)

And still – it hasn’t been, it couldn’t have been such a dreadful life. If a man at the age of 74 still has such an excellent sense of humor, and is still able to reinvent his life in a manner, then that man must be in possession of wonderful creative forces and energy. Of course, he could have possibly used all this creativity and energy for some other purpose, but perhaps this is life, and perhaps screwing things up is a must, just so that later you’ll have something to quietly accept, or something to laugh about cynically and with exquisite self-deprecation.

Problemski Hotel by Dimitri Verhulst

Dimitri Verhulst was brought to my attention by two kind acquaintances of mine. One of them praised Problemski Hotel on his blog earlier, and the other recommended to me another novel by Verhulst, The Misfortunates. I started with Problemski Hotel, which was such an exquisite novel that soon after finishing it I bought The Misfortunates as well, and it didn’t have to lie around for long before I got down to reading it, either. Anyway, this post is about Problemski Hotel.

This short documentary novel tells about the residents of a Belgian refugee camp. The camp houses all kinds of refugees: people from Africa, Chechnya, Albania, India are crowded together, men and women are thrown together, and people from Christian and Islamic backgrounds engage in sometimes violent conflict on a daily basis. The everyday life of the refugees is predictable and immensely boring, nevertheless, it is filled with the most diverse stress factors. The refugees have nothing to do, they have nowhere to go, and in their life there’s definitely no point in trying to get close to anybody, since there’s no telling when someone receives the long-awaited letter telling them whether or not they can stay in Belgium. It doesn’t matter whether the answer is positive or negative, sooner or later everyone leaves the camp, so it’s no use forming friendships or long-term plans.

In the camp everything is transitory, and even though each refugee left a terrible past behind, this doesn’t matter to anyone at all: the other refugees don’t care as they all have horrible life stories of their own, therefore they can hardly be expected to be surprised or shocked by the horrors others endured; the immigration officers don’t care because they are overburdened and are lost among the bureaucratic procedures; and the locals don’t care because all they understand is that with each new refugee, there’s one more useless dipshit treading the Belgian land.

All this could serve as the basis for a brutal, heart-wrenching and unsettling novel, and indeed, Verhulst’s book is such a novel. But not in the way you might expect: there’s not a bit of pretended shock or hypocritical, effusive pity over the misery of others, and there’s no word written in the book which is only meant for effect. This may partly be so because the narrator of the book isn’t a clever external narrator who explains everything (and most certainly it’s not Dimitri Verhulst, the journalist) but Bipul Masli, an acclaimed photojournalist and himself a refugee from Africa. Even though he sees a possible cover photo in each of his refugee camp acquaintances due to his professional background, he still manages to treat every one of them like a human being, and not like an example case offered by some humar rights organization to the public to be shocked by.

And of course we cannot ignore Bipul Masli’s style and humor. His style is cruelly cynical, and his humor is such that made me wonder how Kurt Vonnegut could be considered the master of black humor when authors such as Dimitri Verhulst exist. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kurt Vonnegut (though not as much as I did when I was a teenager, but I still like him well enough), but he simply doesn’t seem to be playing in the same league as Dimitri Verhulst, as regards both his humor and his oft-praised humanism.

Anyway, the usual thing happened to me while I read Problemski Hotel: it was such an excellent and stunning book that I find it extremely hard to speak about it. I’m not Dimitri Verhulst therefore I cannot write without a lot of over-dramatization about the things he handles so easily and naturally. And if there’s one thing I don’t want to do with this book, it is to spoil it with my tearjerking and dramatic words. Therefore I stop writing now.