Intercities - Stefan Hertmans
Russell Degnan

I had planned to start this review with a description of what this book was about, and yet, having now revisited it I realise it isn't about anything. It just is; a collection of essays, most of them vaguely related to the city in the title, but only because he places himself there, rather than because they are about the city, or indeed anything at all.

Using a collection of anecdotes, history, literature and philosophy, Hertmans describes the city and its inhabitants both as he sees them, and as they see themselves.

Not that he is always successful in this. His opening chapter on Sydney and Australians collapses the Australian identity into the Sydney one in a way that he'd never think to do for his native Belgium, while simultaneously failing to find that same identity in its relationship with Aboriginal culture and its convict past.

But while that rang untrue, he could probably find no better place for an existentialist crisis than Adelaide:

It was February and 40 degrees. I looked outside through the full-sized smokey balcony: an abandoned fruit market, scorching tarmac, not a soul in the street, empty vague buildings and above them, a mercilessly still sky, meltingly grey-blue. It took my breath away. I could not cope with this, this emptiness without a sense of time or a feeling of space to give a meaningful framework to waht I saw. [...] There too it was Sunday afternoon, about four o'clock, and I thought that something would snap in my head and start bleeding and make me crazy forever, so confused and empty and without meaning did I feel.

Other chapters are similarly searching, some finding their mark, such as Trieste, caught between Italy, Austria and Slovenia, or Dresden with its Baroque past, and others not.

Not suprisingly though, the best chapter is closest to home; in his description of his life as a Flemish citizen in Amsterdam, and a long-term resident of Amsterdam in Brussels. Here, personal reflections on loving a resident and living in a city mingle with reflections on the differences between the two low countries capitals:

Brussels makes at least one thing immediately clear: that there are two kinds of Dutch-speakers: about sixteen million who belong to the Germanic sphere, and six million who belong to the Latin sphere.

The rift he describes affects all aspects of life, from fashion, to architecture, to the newspapers and television stations available, to the works of literature, and intellectuals admired. But also the difference between two capitals, Amsterdam as the unifier of a nation of one people and one language, and Brussels "the capital without a country, and hence a city without responsibility or morality"

Taken as a whole the book is a diverse and interesting look at the way a city shapes its citizens who shape the culture which shapes a city. That this wasn't always disentangled merely makes it an interesting read.

Finer Things 31st December, 2005 03:43:42   [#]