Newly translated into English, Jan Vantoortelboom’s His Name is David, a Dutch-language bestseller, is a tale of forbidden love set in World War I Flanders. Consisting of vignettes, the narrative unfolds as memories of a young Belgian school teacher as he faces a firing squad for desertion. Presented here are just two scenes from the classroom, showing how he tries to transform the minds of his students, “the boys of Year Six.”
‘But sir, why do we have to cram all these things into our heads?’
Roger interrupted my lesson about the capital cities of Europe. His way of constantly questioning everything drove me up the wall sometimes.
‘Neither my father nor mother have ever been further than Ypres or Poperinge, and on Sundays, my mother goes straight home to milk the cows after Mass and my father only ever gets as far as the pub for a pint.’
‘Quite a distance, if he has to crawl home,’ Jef said.
We ignored the remark.
‘Well, Roger. Maybe you will travel further than your parents one day, and see the whole wide world,’ I said.
‘Who, me? Why? Whaffor?’
‘To look at churches and castles in other countries, perhaps. To see how people live there. Or to observe the wildlife.’
I thought of my childhood. Of the books Father brought us. Of the cupboard full of skulls and bones in my room. Of my brother.
‘But I won’t have the cash for that. And anyway, I don’t give a damn about those things.’
Judging by the way his eyebrows twitched, he knew he should be watching his words.
‘Honest, sir. All I want to do is milk the cows and work the land. So why do I need to know the capitals of Europe, or who Napoleon was? And on Sundays, I want to go drinking, like Dad!’
I needed all my creativity to come up with an answer that would have a motivational effect on the obstinate lout.
‘Well, Roger. Imagine that one day, you take over your father’s farm …’
He interrupted me enthusiastically.
‘Oh, I will, sir! Cos luckily, I’m the oldest!’ He laughed, sneering at Jef and Walter, who both had elder brothers.
‘All right,’ I continued. ‘And now imagine you do, as you say, also take over that genial habit of your father’s, namely drinking on Sundays.’
‘Yes, naturally. Sometimes, I’m already allowed…’
‘That’s enough, Roger,’ I cut him short. ‘As you know, however, no one on this planet is immortal. I’m sorry I have to say so, but one day, your parents will die.’
He fell silent at those words, looking downcast, and I could carry on talking uninterrupted.
‘And your siblings will leave home one day, that’s only natural.’
He was probably picturing it already.
‘That means that you will be left on your own, with your cows, pigs and your beautiful, rolling fields of wheat.’
They were hanging on my every word.
‘But I’ll get married and have lots of children!’ Roger said confidently.
‘Ah. That’s exactly what I was getting to, you took the words out of my mouth. Don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing wrong with things like cows and pigs and rolling wheat fields. But it can get lonely if you don’t have anyone to share them with. So yes, you are indeed very likely to marry and have children. That’s correct. But imagine you fall in love with a pretty girl but can’t really get to know her–you only ever see her in church on Sundays, and her father and brothers are very protective of her, because she’s so lovely.’
‘Just like Giselle Blankaert,’ Jef said seriously.
‘That fat, ugly carrottop?’ Walter blurted out, and it was all I could do to prevent Jef from swinging his fist at him by cracking my ruler down on the desk with all my strength. I noticed it had dented the smooth surface, but at least the boys were quiet and I could continue my story.
‘So there you are, spending your Sundays drinking in the pub, and the girls won’t be there…but who will?’
‘Their father and brothers,’ Marcus said.
‘Exactly! And in pubs, plenty of things are discussed over a pint. Just think, Roger, how impressed her father or brother will be if you can tell them who Napoleon was, and why he was so important. Or if you know that Antwerp is not in Germany. The man will go home feeling that Roger Malfait is a damned clever bloke who will go far in life, and that he wouldn’t mind his daughter bringing him home.’
Roger thought about this, and said, ‘My father always says you shouldn’t choose a pretty woman because you’ll never have her completely to yourself. As long as her legs are straight, he always says.’
‘My father says bandy legs are better,’ Walter said. ‘’Cos then it won’t hurt when she squeezes them together.’
I realised that my pedagogic moment had already come to an end again, but enjoyed the look of admiration in Marcus’s eyes.
* * *
In my classroom, portraits of the kings of Belgium hung on the wall above the blackboard, in frames with thick domed glass. Leopold II in the middle, just below Jesus Christ, was gazing out over the heads of the boys with the stern and righteous eyes of a king. The portrait bothered me. He had been the one who’d had the hands and feet chopped off Congolese children if they didn’t tap enough rubber. Persistent rumours of bloodthirstiness and greed clung to his person like cobwebs. The newspapers were full of them. The more I looked at him–the sharp nose, the frizzled grey beard–the more convinced I was that the man was a murderer.
It was on a Friday afternoon, as the boys were doing their handwriting exercises and I was idly strolling through the class looking at the portrait, that the idea struck me to dethrone Leopold II in this classroom–even if he was no longer actually king and the only witnesses were nine of his former subjects. I decided to do it in a way the children would be able to relate to: smashing the glass of the frame by throwing marbles at it. I ended the handwriting lesson with the request that the boys should each bring two marbles–clay or glass–on Monday because we’d need them at the end of Flemish history lesson.
‘Why two?’ Etienne asked.
‘Because everyone deserves a second chance,’ I said.
The next Monday, at the end of the history lesson in which I had talked at length about the Congo Free State and Leopold II’s role in it, I explained that a monarch should set a good example to his subjects. And that Leopold II had clearly failed to do that. They understood me perfectly, the cruel and bloody images I had fed them earlier still fresh in their minds: the scene of a father sitting on the ground with knees drawn up, staring at the lopped-off hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter who had not tapped enough rubber (I had seen an actual photograph of this, which of course I had not shown to them for pedagogical reasons), the image of the shed in which the severed hands and feet of the slaves were smoked for preservation, to be exchanged for a premium. Whipping, rape, kidnapping and mass murder. The boys were eyeing the portrait with withering stares, perfectly primed for what I had in mind. I walked to the back of the classroom and drew a circle on the floor with chalk.
‘Each of you will take it in turn to throw your first marble at the portrait of Leopold II. I will call the winner by the name “Emperor of Goodness” for a week!’
The prize didn’t appeal to them.
‘And give him one franc!’
They cheered. Stamped their feet. Beat their chests like gorillas. I told them to concentrate and take careful aim, as they would only get two throws.
‘Because everyone deserves a second chance,’ Etienne shouted.
‘That is an absolute moral imperative. A human being should not be judged by the worst fifteen minutes of his life,’ I said, knowing full well that second chances were a rare thing in real life–though of course I didn’t say so.
They looked at me impatiently, then I noticed Marcus had not moved from his desk. I went up to him.
‘I don’t want to throw anything at the king of Belgium,’ he said softly when I was standing next to him.
‘He’s not the king any more,’ I said. ‘Fortunately, the monarch we have now is a much juster man.’
‘It feels wrong all the same.’ He swallowed, and stared straight ahead. I asked him whether he minded someone else throwing for him. He didn’t want that, either. Behind my back, the boys started cursing and swearing. I turned round and told them I would call off the game if I heard one more dirty word within these walls.
‘He was not a good king,’ I said. ‘You heard as much today.’
‘But doesn’t he deserve a second chance too?’
‘Very occasionally, people make such a complete mess of their first chance that they forfeit the second one,’ I said to Marcus. I was starting to feel bad about the whole thing.
‘That’s what you say.’
‘That’s what I say.’
Jef was the first, and missed. He’d thrown with so much force, a piece of plaster flew off the wall. The marble clattered down on my desk and onto the floor tiles. The other boys roared, lousy shot! Chump! Get out of the circle and let Etienne have a go! Etienne nervously entered the circle, but just as he wanted to throw after taking aim with his right eye squeezed shut for a full minute, someone pushed him. The marble missed my vase with the arum lily by a whisker. He quickly stepped out of the circle and went to the back of the queue. Maurice Muylle did a little better. But only the twins’ turns finally brought the desired result. Cyril’s marble hit the edge of the portrait. It didn’t even scratch the frame. Emiel hit the middle of the bubble. The glass was stronger than I had expected, though closer inspection revealed a crack.
Once everyone had had their first turn, we started again. I was beginning to think the portrait of King Leopold II would stay in its place unscathed, that the eyes of this royal criminal would carry on burning into my back. To prevent this, I decided to give the boys a choice of missile from the geometric models we used in maths lessons: a cuboid, a pyramid, a sphere, a cone and a cylinder. Marcus was still sitting stiffly at his desk, his hands folded in his lap. Roger was the first to grab the sphere, which was wrested from his hands by Maurice, who in turn was elbowed in the face and started bawling. When I had restored order yet again, I positioned them with their backs against the cupboard, pacing to and fro in front of them like a disgruntled sergeant. I picked up the ball that had fallen to the floor and handed it to Roger. Back to the circle for the second round. It was a series of blunders. Not a single one of them hit the mark. When it was over, they stood there looking crestfallen, expecting me to stretch the rules of the game. I had no intention of doing that. Rules are rules, I said. You never, ever get a third chance. Forget it. The was nothing else for it, I would have to do it myself. But the moment I stepped into the circle, Marcus rose to his feet and announced with determination that he’d changed his mind and would give it a try after all. He took the ball out of my hands, stood in the circle and flung it into the middle of the portrait in a perfect arc. And at the exact moment that the portrait crashed down onto the tiles behind my desk, Father Storme entered the classroom.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, I woke with a start. The boiling rage in the eyes of the priest when he saw the portrait of King Leopold II lying among the broken glass on the floor. His pent-up breath, his flushed face. My nightgown was sticky with sweat. The smell of mould was back, too. He had called the classroom a snake pit. Had frightened the boys with hell and damnation. He had made himself out to be the shepherd of the Elverdingen souls, the defender of the royal family, who took such pains to convert Negroes in Africa. I could see the doubt creeping into the boys’ eyes as they flitted to and fro between the priest and me. I wouldn’t put up with it. Not in my classroom. Not in front of my boys. I went up to him calmly, until I was close enough to touch him. The door was open, and with an outstretched arm, I emphatically demanded that he leave.
His Name is David by Jan Vantoortelboom, translated by Vivien D. Glass, is published by World Editions (£10.99).
Jan Vantoortelboom teaches English at The University of Applied Sciences in Vlissingen and lives with his family in rural Zeeland, the Netherlands. His Name Is David was a Dutch-language bestseller and is Jan Vantoortelboom’s second novel.
Vivien D. Glass is a literary translator from Dutch and German to English. She was born in Switzerland and moved to the Netherlands in 1995, where she completed a Bachelor’s degree at the ITV University of Applied Sciences for Translation and Interpreting. Her published translations include works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s verse and more.
Read More Translations: