Wednesday, May 29, 2013

reading into Belgium: a trip, comics, an open city, and finding books

This blog post is inspired by the "around the world" reading challenge and the "It's Monday! What are you reading?" series. More about the challenge, the series and further reads, at the bottom of this post.

Last week brought some challenge-inspired reading: the “around-the-world” contest has Belgium as destination for May. First I thought, I won't join this month, but then Belgium... it's a neighbour country of Germany, and I visited it on a short trip once. But I can't remember reading a book from a Belgium author - could that be?

A trip to Belgium
The thought hooked me, and so I went looking - both for photos from the trip, which was the easier part: the short trip was in August 2004, and lead forth and back between the three borders that meet up there: Germany, Netherlands and Belgium. In Belgium, the city we visited was: "Liege", which is called "LĂĽttich" in German. Here are 2 photos, I remember how i enjoyed the colorful mix of shapes, of old houses and modern plazas with sculptures: in architecture, of graffiti and classic facades:

Comic Books from Belgium
After the photos, I looked through the book shelves here, and doing so, i came across a collection of classic comics. It made me remember that there is a whole own range of European comics, called "Francobelgian" ... and yes, 3 books of the collection are from Belgian authors. The books wait since ages, still wrapped up.. Each paperback presents one author and his/her main comic series. So I revisited Lucky Luke and the Smurfs last week, and Gaston. Not sure if Lucky Luke and the Smurfs are as well-known outside Europe, but here, they were very popular when I was a kid.

The comic collection itself, I am really glad I started to read into it now: each single issues starts with an author and series portrait, and the stories included are well chosen - for example for the smurfs, the first story is the "roots" story of the smurfs, which made their initial appearance in a humorous comic set in the time of kings and queens. Also included is the story of the first female smurf - I remembered that one hazily. It also made me think that back as a child, a book was all about story, and the author and the place it was written didn't matter. I guess with the smurfs I didn't realize they were translated. And Lucky Luke, I thought it was coming from the US, with its western theme.

A question that I couldn't find the answer to so far is: why is Belgium such a hot spot for comics? Here's more about the phenomenon of Franco-Belgian comics, in wikipedia, with a list of the most notable comics, and more surprises: Asterix is Belgian, too - as are Blueberry, Marsupilami, and Tintin!

The article also gives some clues for the variety of comics created in Belgium:
When Germany invaded France and Belgium, it became close to impossible to import American comics. The occupying Nazis banned American animated movies and comics they deemed to be of a questionable character. Both were, however, already very popular before the war and the hardships of the war period only seemed to increase the demand. This created an opportunity for many young artists to start working in the comics and animation business. 
And as comics are all about image, here's a video clip with sights from the Belgian capital Brussels, and the comic murals that are part of the city:



Belgium in a novel: Open City

After I started to read into the comics, I remembered that a part of a novel I read last year actually was set in Brussels: Teju Cole's "Open City" is set in New York, the home of main character Julius. But the roots of Julius' family lead back to Africa, and his grandmother migrated from there to Brussels - and so he decides to visit this city. For some reason, he doesn't manage to meet her there. But he has several encounters with people who live in Brussels or are there temporarily. And the title of the book itself, "Open City" -

- it sounds so open and inviting, and at first i assumed its a metaphor for New York. But it refers to Brussels, the explanation of it actually is included in the book, and reaches back to 1940:  "Had Brussel's rulers not opted to declare it an open city and thereby exempt it from bombardment during the Second World War.."

It's a key line for the book, and made me look up the term in Wikipedia during a google search, when looking for more background:

"Open City: In war, in the event of the imminent capture of a city, the government/military structure of the nation that controls the city will sometimes declare it an open city, thus announcing that they have abandoned all defensive efforts." - Wiki/OpenCity

Which also means in some cases that the doors of houses aren't blocked - that the winners can go in for the taking, without defense. More about Open City, in a longer blog entry: Open City - links, ponderings, troubled complacency, and this place between ignorance & attention


Belgium and Africa
And one more find: this month, i made a little discovery: e-book readers can neatly look for a word in all e-books they have in their files. After the comic finds, I just had to look up "Belgium". And arrived at a book that I once downloaded when it was up as temporary free read: "Cafe d'Afrique - a personal discovery". It's the memoir of Tineke Van der Eecken, a Belgian-born social scientist, UN-worker, writer and visual artist who lived and worked in Africa during the nineties.

So again, a book from Belgium that already was in my shelves, without me realizing it. the main focus of the book is on Burundi and Zambia. Reading into it, it made me think of the Historia book from April, written by the volunteer teacher who went to Cape Verde with the Peace Corps, to find herself faced with a very different concept of social, political and cultural life. It's part memoir and part travelogue, and so far, takes a bit to get into it.

For both books, the connection of Africa and Belgium is of course rooted in the time of Belgian colonialism - it's almost like two sides of writing: the Belgian comics which are based on the time of being cut off from the comic-mainstream. And the novels / memoir, which both follow historic connections and the way they still influence the world.


Finding Books

I really enjoyed this discovery-tour induced by the Belgium challenge, and it also made me go and pull some useful links together in a blog post: Finding books by country: helpful links + resources

Upcoming next as destination is: South Korea. Looking forward to it.

Previous reading blog entries are collected here: bookshelf: currently  reading... there also is a visual bookshelf, just click it to get there.

Around the world is a challenge by book blogger Giraffe Days. Here's the challenge overview link, and here the Belgium reading challenge page.

More monday reads from other bloggers: link list at book journey

And my own new book... is Worl(d)s Apart. True.

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