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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

A Biblical Journey and a Return to Hell

DESIRE by Hugo Claus, Viking, $24.95, 211 pages

January 19, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Belgium is a low country. It is the country of the endive, of the chocolate, the Congo. It is the headquarters of NATO, a country of two languages: Flemish and French. It is a nation that boasts the highest number of mercenaries and Michelin stars per capita.

Belgium also shares with its lower neighbor to the north a tradition of inspired painters, from Rembrandt and Vermeer through Van Gogh and de Kooning. Unlike their friends in the sunnier south, these masters were likelier to paint crowned roasts and field hands than crowned heads and Elysian fields. Their canvas was the middle class, and their subject the burgher, his food, his drink and his games.

It is this Belgium of cards and beer, pontoon and Stella Artois, that is the setting for "Desire," a masterful novel by the contemporary Flemish master, Hugo Claus. Published in Dutch in 1978 and only recently translated into English, "Desire" opens in a typical local pub in a typical Belgian town:

"The Unicorn is bigger than a breadbox, but only just, it stinks from the cesspit in the courtyard, the walls are hung with faded ads for beer that hasn't been brewed in a dog's age, from the days when every village had its own brewery." The clientele is exclusively local, a kennel's worth of card players, straight out of Pieter de Hooch or Paul Cezanne's "Card Players": Felix the Cat, Gerald the Prick, Doctor Verbracken, Deaf Derek, Prans the Dutchman and Verbist the Schoolmaster, a "redbearded, nearsighted, coddled egghead in jeans." They are men of small-town desires and prejudices.

Michel is one of them, a salesman of electronic equipment who lives at home with an air gun, a Hitlerjugend dagger and an aging mother who smells of dead flowers and cauliflower. One late morning, between games of pontoon, Michel loses his temper. In a fit of righteous inspiration, he announces that he is going to take Jake, the holy Fool of the Unicorn, on a gambling spree to Las Vegas, "because a serious player plays for serious money and that only happens in the U.S. of A."

Jake, a gentle Flemish giant, the voice of a "convent-school-girl" trapped in 250 pounds of "shy, lonesome, solitary blubber," is the slow-witted butt of the Unicorn's jokes. He accepts Michel's offer "a hundred an' fifty procent." He needs the time and the distance of this junket to think about his own life. His wife, Dina, despises him as much as his friends at the Unicorn. And his beloved 18-year-old daughter, Didi, wanders blindly in a private madness after a mysterious trauma has left her lowing like a cow and drooling like a baby. Jake desires something, he can't say exactly what it is. But he hopes he can find it in this trip to America.

From Los Angeles to Las Vegas without a map, Michel and Jake travel from motel to diner, from casino to church, playing cards and drinking whatever isn't screwed down. In one riotous revival meeting, they listen spellbound as a hung-over Jerry Lee Lewis confesses to the murder of Elvis. "And since that time, I have never been the Jerry Lee Lewis I once was."

Jake's journey in particular resounds with biblical import. This modern-day Jacob lusts after a hooker named Rachel and a stripper named Leah and befriends a prophet named Amos, who preaches by day and referees kangaroo boxing at Circus Circus by night. Nevertheless, Claus keeps the biblical sense of the scene from overpowering the human. Jake and Michel are tourists in a strange land, never strangers.

But as entertaining as Jake and Michel's excellent adventure is, and as dislocating a portrait it paints of America one year after the death of Elvis, it is the action back home that is most horrifying. It takes a trip to America for Jake to recognize how his pals at the Unicorn have made him more than just the butt of their jokes.

Claus has painted a masterpiece, but not of an internationalist Belgium, a paradise of European Unity. His Card Players make their tricks in a squalid, ingrown Garden of Earthly Delights, a hell of Bosch-like proportions.

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