Louis Paul Boon
Translated from the Flemish
by Paul Vincent
Dalkey Archive Press: 136 pp., $12.95 paper
"My Little War" is a fictionalized account of the Flemish writer Louis Paul Boon's travails as a frontline soldier during World War II. But don't mistake it for a hero's journey. Boon was captured after just three days of action, sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp and eventually allowed to return to his village in occupied Belgium. This slender volume, originally published in 1947 but only now available in English for the first time, is an anti-epic. Boon is less interested in his own misfortunes than in those of the people he encounters along his way.
Each chapter in "My Little War" takes the form of a short vignette that introduces a new character. We meet a malnourished woman "with the eyes of a thirty-year-old and the mouth of an eighty-year-old" who dies of cancer on the day the liberation forces arrive. A starving POW goes to the latrine in search of a piece of bread that came to him in a dream. Then there's the soldier who thoughtfully replaces the water in a goldfish bowl while occupying a dairy farmer's house in the countryside -- after smashing in the windows and bashing down the door.
If such stories seem equal parts comic and grotesque, it's because they're riddled with truth. In fact, many of them were originally published in newspapers. But on their own, Boon realizes, they may seem too anecdotal. So he gives each episode an italicized addendum that alternately expands and comments on it.
Here, Boon follows up on the fates of the people who shuffle through the deck of his narrative, adds details about people who suffered in similar situations or simply throws up his hands in despair at trying to pay tribute to them all.
During these meta-fictional asides, Boon's outrage pierces the decorum of the more anecdotal main accounts. It's as if he were reprimanding himself: How dare you tidy up this monstrousness with your pen? What right do you have to turn these crimes against humanity into a story?
In many ways, such a style is similar to that of Kenneth Patchen, the American poet and novelist who influenced the Beats and whose aphoristic prose constructions incorporated images, cut-up narratives and multiple type sizes and styles to get his antiwar message across.
Boon's pervasive nihilism also calls to mind the darker novels of another Belgian, the crime writer Georges Simenon. Yet the most distinctive feature of his narrative is its mode of address, which shuttles back and forth between the easy intimacy of war gossip and the hysterical ravings of someone confessing to things that will get him ostracized or shot or worse.
Boon exposes the myth of the combat narrative involving a group of protagonists who grow up together, fight together and die together. Instead, "My Little War" offers a nightmarish parade of strangers who try to do the narrator harm, either by sending him into battle or shooting him when he gets there. The situation worsens at home, where his countrymen and women are desperate to sell anything they can find -- a lump of coal, a malicious rumor, their dignity -- for the price of a bowl of soup.
Everyone has a part to play, and everyone is guilty of something, Boon concludes. But with so many atrocities suffered and indignities endured, the victims pile up, and each demands a testimonial. Boon does what he can, in his own inimitable style.
Or, as he writes toward the end of the novel:
"A last cry:
KICK PEOPLE HARD
TILL THEY GET A CONSCIENCE"
Ruland is the author of the short-story collection "Big Lonesome."