Sunday, October 25, 2009

Introducing René Van Valckenborch

This is an incredible story.

In the autumn of 2002 two youthful translators met at a conference I organised on Translational Spaces held at Heidelberg, not in itself an auspicious thing to happen. When it is revealed that one of the translators’ specialisms was to translate from the Dutch language group and that the other was a specialist in Francophone literatures, it might have been expected that, other than the theory of translation, there would be nothing to hold them together. They were both participating on a panel on the literary translation strand themed with contemporary poetry and a remarkable thing happened, as I knew it would, having read their detailed abstracts in advance and paired them. Martin Krol, who was from South Africa, and who was an authority on Flemish poetry, and Annemie Dupuis from Quebec, and who was interested in Walloon literature, discovered not only that they were speaking about translating the poetic work of that most linguistically and bitterly divided of modern European nations, Belgium, but that they were speaking about the work of the same poet, René Van Valckenborch. This, again, is not in itself unusual, but what they discovered – and what had apparently been kept hidden from the literary schools of that country, separated as they are not just by language but by culture and regional autonomy – was that Van Valckenborch had written in both languages and had published two distinct bodies of work, one initially in Canada and the other partly in South Africa, as well as in Europe, Rouen and Amsterdam, as well as in Belgium.

Both translators had imagined that they were the first to apply themselves to Van Valckenborch’s small output. There was surprise and laughter for, after Krol had delivered his paper ‘Aprosody as Cognitive Mapping’, Dupuis declared herself unwilling to read her original paper, ‘The Return of the Mind to Things’, and extemporised a series of fascinating challenges to herself and Krol about this extraordinary circumstance. After initial mutual suspicion, and diplomatic manoeuvres on my part during a coffee break, they agreed to work together to solve what they regarded as the central mystery: how could, and why would, one writer produce two discrete oeuvres? Their initial answers required them to engage in further translations, email exchanges across continents, and occasional meetings over the next few months. This is not the place to enquire further into their liaisons, but after Martin took up a post in Brussels, interpreting for the EU, Annemie moved there too, to work as freelance translator. They lived together, and married in 2006 (but separated in 2010, about the same time this story unravels).

One of the delights – but occasionally one of the disappointments – of translating contemporary works, is meeting their author. As soon as the couple settled in Brussels, they insist, they set about searching for Van Valckenborch. It had not been unusual for his publishers abroad and at home to only deal with him by email and post – but neither cybernetic nor street addresses yielded a reply, nor did ringing on suggested doors reveal the man. Stalking the noisy dope-hazed bars in rue de Flandre – a ‘clue’ from one of the poems Krol explained – asking crag-faced bikers after a man of whom they had not even the vaguest description proved fruitless, as did hushed enquiries at the Poeziecentrum, located at a forlorn corner of a forgotten square in Ghent. The man had vanished, or as in one of those Magritte paintings that seem to encapsulate Belgian surreality, his figure offers his back to us, as does his reflection in the mirror beyond him: an appropriate image also for his double oeuvre. For not only did the man – his traces – disappear, his work stopped appearing. The bookshop at Ghent was to furnish the last substantial chunk of his work in Flemish, A Hundred and Eight Odes, and a final Walloon fascicle, emoticon, was reportedly picked up by Dupuis in a sale in a sunny bilingual shop in rue Antoine Dansaert in Brussels, not far from their apartment. A website, no sooner clicked onto by me then deleted, left an address without host, a single link to his last Twitter stream of enigmatic condensation. There was, about that time, some controversy about the existence of a few poems in German, Belgium’s third language, which purported to be by Van Valckenborch – they circulated privately under the title The Salad in the Wardrobe – but these are considered apocryphal if not fraudulent.

The idea that this extraordinary body of work was a hoax naturally arose. Perhaps it was a counter-hoax, some commentators suggested, to the one perpetrated by RTBF when it broadcast spoof reports of Flanders’ declaration of independence from Belgium in December 2006, and which caused a reaction of an Orson Welles magnitude. (Incidentally, this occurred four days after our translators were married and the processions of monarchists in the capital interrupted their extended festivities, to which I had been invited!) The existence of a genuinely bilingual contemporary poet in Belgium seems too good, or bad, depending on one’s perspective, to be true. However, someone had to compose these verses and although suspicion has fallen upon the two translators – critics speculate that the confrontation in Heidelberg was staged, the original poems written backwards from their double ‘translations’, charges I refute as Byzantine absurdity – the fact remains that the poems exist, and demand to be read. (Of course, suspicion has fallen upon myself also, particularly since Dupuis and Krol seem not to answer calls or reply to letters, indeed seem to have left Brussels, if not Belgium, if not Europe….) I am not denying that the poems’ ontological status is unchanged by questions of what would once have been called ‘authenticity’, but it remains a truth that these poems face us uncertainly with this lack of facts – again, not unlike Magritte’s canvasses, which often offer us monumental but obscured central enigmas. The unease which this situation evokes, cannot be willed away by transferring these texts into Gerald Bruns’ convenient category of ‘fictional poems': ‘To be sure, the difference between a poem in a novel and a poem in an anthology is apt to be empirically indiscernible. To speak strictly, a fictional poem would be a poem held in place less by literary history than by one of the categories that the logical world keeps in supply: conceptual models, possible worlds, speculative systems, hypothetical constructions in all their infinite variation – or maybe just whatever finds itself caught between quotation marks, as (what we call) “reality” often is.’ (Bruns, Gerald L. The Material of Poetry. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2005: 105-6.)

Erik Canderlinck
Institute of Literary Translation, Leuven.

Read the update as part of the introduction to A Translated Man.