For Belgium, I read The Misfortunates, by Dimitri Verhulst. “Misfortunate” isn’t even listed in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, so I went to the Internet to see what it means (although I had a pretty good idea). According to oxforddictionaries.com, “misfortunate” is a Scottish term meaning “an unfortunate person.”
With such a sad-sounding title, I had hoped this book would be purely a work of fiction. But no – it’s a semi-autobiographical novel. In fact, the dedication reads, in part: “And in memory of my grandmother, who wanted to avoid the shame and died while I was completing the last pages of the manuscript.” Honestly, faced with this much gloom before I’d even read a word of the first chapter, I’m surprised I followed through with it.
As I got into it, though, it wasn’t an especially sad book, at least not in the sense that it made me want to cry. It’s a series of vignettes about four brothers (three adults and one teenager) living in the fictional town of Arsendegem, Belgium, with their mother and Dimitri, the 13-year-old son of one of the brothers. Dimitri is the book’s narrator, and these vignettes are woven together loosely to tell the story of his coming of age among four men whose lives revolve around alcohol and other vices. Mostly alcohol, though.
When Dimitri is born, his father is at one of the local pubs and doesn’t make it to the hospital in time for the birth. When he finally arrives on a bicycle, inebriated, he snatches baby Dimitri up, loads him onto the bicycle, and takes him to all his favorite pubs to show him to his friends. More drinking ensues, and it’s a miracle that Dimitri is returned to the hospital in one piece by his father later that night.
Some chapters in the book are comical, such as the one detailing the family’s obsession with the music of Roy Orbison, and others are poignant, like the one in which Dimitri, now an adult, visits his grandmother in the nursing home where she is in the advanced stages of dementia. The reader follows Dimitri’s father’s journey to the rehab clinic to try to take control of his drinking, and Dimitri’s unhappiness about becoming a father himself. Throughout the book, there is an air of fatalism, a feeling among the characters that their lot in life is simply to drink, smoke, and carouse until cancer or some other illness kills them.
Dimitri’s life doesn’t follow the pattern of the other men in the family, but the scars from his earlier years are apparent in the writing. Also apparent, however, is his great affection for those men. As an adult who has long since moved away from Arsendegem, he writes, “The misfortunate have a more realistic view of the world; my love for my uncles is vast and incomprehensible, but no one has ever had the gall to demand comprehensibility of love.”
Food was mentioned occasionally in The Misfortunates, but nothing sounded very good, and practically nothing was vegan or veganizable, although one of Dimitri’s uncles did joke, “Next thing they’ll come up with meat-free meat.” Mostly, the men in the family just drank. As Dimitri said of his father, “The years in which he dutifully drank himself into serial oblivion had robbed him of his appetite.”
That left me free to search the Internet for any Belgian recipes I could veganize, and the Belgian potato soup recipe I found on the Recipes Wiki website looked perfect. I substituted margarine for the butter and vegetable broth for the chicken stock, of course, but I wasn’t sure how to replace the light cream. One website suggested blending silken tofu until smooth, so that’s what I did. I also added salt and pepper. The soup was delicious, and I’m sure it will become a winter favorite for me.
Women did not fare well in The Misfortunates. The only man in Dimitri’s family who appeared to have had a relationship of any duration with a woman was his dad, and that didn’t end happily. Attractive women were objectified, and the men didn't consider most other women worth discussing. The whole lot of Verhulst men seemed to go back and forth between being misogynists and simply not being interested in anything that wasn’t booze.
In choosing an organization for this week’s donation, I decided to get back at this old boys’ club by giving my money to a group that helps girls. Greenlight for Girls, which I found through the GlobalGiving website, "holds one-day, girl-focused events to show the fun in math, science, engineering and technology through hands-on workshops run by role-models in STEM fields." The events are offered in Brussels free of charge, and the organization reaches out to girls in low-income neighborhoods especially. More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/inspire-girls-in-hands-on-science-around-the-world/.
NEXT STOP: BELIZE