The Factory of Facts
How could a writer write about this world, if it was the only world
he knew?—V.S. Naipaul, A Way in the World
The greatest African poet in the French language, Léopold Sédar Senghor, coined half a century ago the concept of négritude. This neologism (built on nègre—“nigger”) deftly reversed an infamous racist label, and redeemed it by vesting it with a new meaning of ethnic and cultural pride. Following this illustrious example, a grim Belgian wit, in the spirit of self-derision which is characteristic of his compatriots, invented the sarcastic notion of “Belgitude.”
Belgitude is a burden no less heavy for being invisible to a majority of its sufferers; perhaps, in order to plumb its full depth, a Belgian needs first to become an alien. Belgitude is something he will then discover on returning home after a long absence—he will experience it as the crushing weight that will make him hang his head in gloom and despondency under the cold, dark rain of the native sky, as he is suddenly assailed by all the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of the native land—a land racked with endemic tribal warfare, a land where merriment, even at its most aggressively boisterous, penetrates the bystander with sorrow—a land which chose for its emblematic totems (as Baudelaire already noted ) the figures of a pissing scamp and of a vomiting drunk….
But this land does not produce many aliens: a Belgian emigrant seems to be a contradiction in terms. In this respect, Georges Simenon, the most famous Belgian writer of our century, told an anecdote from his childhood, which has value as an archetype. One evening, Simenon’s father was invited by a friend who had just bought a new car to join the latter on a short drive to a neighboring town, some twelve miles away. “Our mother,” Simenon recalled, “made me and my brother kneel down for the entire duration of our father’s little jaunt, and pray to God that no catastrophe befall him on the way. It was as if he had left for the moon.”^3
The purpose of these preliminary observations is essentially to dispel any suspicions that, if I was drawn to Luc Sante’s book, it must have been because we happen to share a same Belgian origin. Contrary to appearances, Belgium is not the topic of his book, even though one chapter (which, to my mind, is superfluous ) may create such a misleading impression. Actually, The Factory of Facts is as much “a book about Belgium” as—let us say—Naipaul’s memorable prose poems (conventionally called “novels”) are “about” his native Trinidad, or his adopted Wiltshire.
Evelyn Waugh, analyzing with clinical detachment the sterility that was progressively freezing his pen, confessed to a friend: “Nothing that happens to one after the age of forty makes any impression.” This desolate observation explains why creative writers, once they have entered the arid wastes of middle age, must …