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The Fraternal Germanic People of Belgium : THE SORROW OF BELGIUM <i> by Hugo Claus; translated by Arnold J. Pomerans (Pantheon Books: $24.95; 616 pp.; 0-394-56263-1) </i>

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With biting wit, gorgeous language and graphic imagery, Hugo Claus rushes the reader back in time as if by magic. “The Sorrow of Belgium” tells the frequently risible, profoundly moving story of a Flemish boy growing up during the German Occupation. The coming of age of Louis Seynaeve, set in the years between 1939 and 1947, offers a compelling read at multiple levels of meaning.

Young Louis evolves from a 10-year-old convent schoolboy subject to fits of lurid reverie, to an “introvert and loner” of nascent conscience who has learned to trust nothing but his creative impulse.

As does Louis in “The Sorrow of Belgium,” Hugo Claus wrote his first novel in 1947 at age 18. The Belgian author, poet, painter, playwright and film maker has since been regarded as the preeminent author writing in Dutch. “The Sorrow of Belgium” was published in the Netherlands in 1983. This immense autobiographical novel is clearly Claus’ masterwork.

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Reaching us at a time when one no longer can scan the arts pages of a newspaper without reading about the First Amendment, this English translation--impressively realized by Arnold J. Pomerans--is remarkably opportune. “The Sorrow of Belgium” is a beacon for those who believe that the novel in our time has lost its capacity to change lives.

Wartime Belgium doesn’t seem particularly strange to Louis. There is death, of course, but life pretty much goes on. Papa says: “There always have to be scapegoats, and this time it’s the Jews.”

His mother (neatly named Constance) never doted on Louis, so it isn’t surprising that Mama doesn’t wait for him during her runs to the air-raid shelter. His father was always one to stash the caramels, so Louis already knows where to ferret out food that Papa has hidden from his only son. And the ghastly sexual initiation would have been traumatic at any time.

Controversy in Europe upon the publication of “The Sorrow of Belgium,” interestingly, was not sparked by the intense evocations of sex and sacrilege, which most certainly would arouse the interest of such American censor-mongers as the Rev. Donald Wildmon. Some Belgians were offended by the folksy characterization of the Nazi sympathizers. And at least one West German publication chided the author for being too “soft” on the collaborators.

A little Belgian history, nicely incorporated into Pomerans’ notes, can help clarify the European reaction to Claus’ novel and its sly perspective on the hazards of nationalism.

Belgium has two official languages, French and Dutch. The boundary between the French-speaking Walloons in the South and the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the North has remained virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages. When the land that became Belgium in 1830--known through the centuries as the Pays Bas (Low Countries), Flanders or Belgica-- won its independence from the Netherlands, power was concentrated in the hands of the upper classes, who spoke French.

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A century later, some Flemish Belgians, frustrated by the schema of modern Belgium, felt flattered by the Pan-Germanic slogans of the Nazis. “We’re not Belgians,” Louis’ father tells his wife, “we are Flemings, we belong to a fraternal Germanic people.”

The disturbing revelation of “The Sorrow of Belgium” lies in discovering not an exotic landscape of heroes and villains bridled by Fascist management but the familiar routines and family quirks of bourgeois life, seen through Louis’ dispassionate and scathingly irreverent eyes.

When, thanks to a benefactor with good Gestapo connections, Louis and Papa find themselves in a secret room with towers of books, the boy is instructed to select complete sets and leather-bound books. “No soft covers, I told you,” Louis is warned before his father naps.

But as Papa snores, Louis reads Huxley, Remarque, Mann, Feuchtwanger, Barbusse.

” . . . His head began to ache from reading too quickly, too greedily, and then he looked at pictures, of naked fat women with reddish tufts of pubic hair and weals across their buttocks. Grosz.”

Screams from the courtyard-- “Three or four gruff, strident voices barked out hacked-off commands, imitated German orders, mechanical, practiced, brooking no argument.”

The 14-year-old is alarmed.

“It could be Holst being tortured for having smuggled them into this exciting paradise of decadent Jewish propaganda.”

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The screams stop. What if they killed him? Louis asks his father. Suppose they got the wrong man, that he didn’t know anything?

Father assures son that the Nazis would surely realize if they were to interrogate the wrong man. Then they let him go and apologize.

“How do they realize?”

“They’re experts. They’ve been to special universities. And shut up with your idiotic questions.”

It is easy now to shudder at the policies of the Nazi Reich. Historical hindsight is invaluable in evaluating evil. But how is the path to reprehensibility laid? Step by step.

I once heard that if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will leap out to save itself. But put the same frog in a pot of warm water, raise the temperature in increments, and the creature will remain and die.

“The Sorrow of Belgium” is a frog’s view from a simmering pot.

After the liberation, Louis writes in his journal:

” . . . all this time we have been living in a nightmare, did you know that, you old rascal? That’s what it says in the new newspapers

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“It appears, according to these newspapers, that the nightmare will dissolve once the Nazi beast has finally been slain. We are heading for a dream of equality, fraternity and liberty. Yes, with the same people.”

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