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A coming-of-age saga by one of Belgium's most prolific writers (The Duck Hunt, 1954; Karel Appel, Painter, 1963). Set mostly in wartime Belgium, the story's a strong, sweeping account of how history impinges on ordinary lives. In 1939, Louis Seynaeve, a young Flemish boy, is ten years old and attending a convent boardinghouse, infamous for its ""Book of Rules"" and for a teacher/priest known as ""the Rock."" The early part of the novel is devoted to schoolboy adventures (in a tone that's by turns satirical and affectionate) and to an unveiling of Belgium's complicated social and cultural reality: there are a nationalist Flemish movement underway and a number of proto-Fascist groups in the making. The Nazis finally invade, and Louis goes home to Walle in the French-speaking South, while his mother is off across the Alps and his father is welcoming the Occupation. Claus is best at developing the complex relationships in Louis' extended family (""Grandma has seven children. . .like the seven plagues of Egypt""), its members ranging from fat Aunt Violet, who is charged with dancing stark-naked, to a Jewish uncle. Louis is at first attracted to the National Socialist Youth of Flanders, a local Nazi youth movement where he learns ""about the Judeo-American epidemic that has drifted across to us."" His incisive mind and ongoing contact with ""the Rock,"" however, lead him eventually to a problematic conflict with his milieu; by war's end, he's become aware of a jumble of different nationalities vying for attention and limited goods as the Allies fly over while the priests keep the school open. Finally, he gives his allegiance to literature and writes an autobiographical novel. The translation is brisk, and the narrative carefully textured--making Louis emblematic of a young European mind in the process of gaining a social and artistic conscience.

Pub Date: May 29th, 1990
Publisher: Pantheon