Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

Akashic Books

||| |||

News & Features » August 2016 » Michel Dufrannes’s Introduction to Brussels Noir

Michel Dufrannes’s Introduction to Brussels Noir

To celebrate the release of Brussels Noir, the latest from Akashic’s Noir Series, we’re pleased to give you a portrait of the city with editor Michel Dufranne’s introduction, “Beneath a Low, Gray Sky.”

Beneath a Low, Gray Sky

Genesis 11:1–9 tells us that God, angered to see the Tower of Babel rising to the heavens, decided to confound the universal language and scatter it over the surface of the earth; the text fails to mention that a piece of this tower must have landed in the center of the marshland north of Gaul, where, according to Julius Caesar, the people are the bravest (and the most barbarous) in the land, and given birth to . . . Brussels!

Brussels the cosmopolitan, multilingual capital. Brussels, whose geography and demographics are reminiscent of a small rural town. Brussels, a city that tourists can walk across in a few hours, but that groans under the weight of its complexity and multiple identities. Brussels of a thousand faces, a city in the heart of Europe where communities live side by side in (almost constant) peace and harmony, without ever seeking to get to know one another. Brussels, at the center of all Belgian disputes . . . Brussels, the specter of Europe constantly raised by Europhobes . . . Brussels . . .

It’s impossible to write about my city without first drawing a portrait of the bureaucracy at the origin of all its misfortune—and all of its richness. Brussels (or Brussel in Dutch . . . here we go!) is a small village of just over a million inhabitants, situated an hour and twenty-five minutes from Paris and two hours from London, Amsterdam, or Cologne. The capital of the federal state known as the Kingdom of Belgium, it is enclaved within the region—relatively autonomous, Flemish-speaking—of Flanders, of which it is also the capital (despite the fact that few of its inhabitants actually speak Flemish). But, to keep anyone from kicking up a fuss, it’s also the capital of the French-speaking community of Belgium, represented by an entity called the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles. And if this isn’t already hard enough to keep straight, Brussels also insists on being a region in itself, with its own elected government, which geographically covers the city of Brussels: a city made up of nineteen municipalities (arrondissements, for those who speak Parisian), the largest of which is named . . . Brussels. Are you lost yet? This is the moment to recall that, down to its very institutions, Belgium is a land of surrealism, of pragmatism, and of a certain irony—for want of knowing any better—and that all of this is part of the fabric of everyday life. I will spare you the symbolic titles of my city (the “capital” of Europe, of NATO, etc.)—and its history, which is also the history of the Spanish, Austrian, French, Dutch, in that order and disorder.

Fortunately, Brussels, my city, is more than the sum of its administrative roles; it is also known the world over for bruxellisation, its tendency to destroy the urban fabric in the name of modernity, to the detriment of its residents; for its façadism, the practice of conserving only the facade of buildings and destroying the rest; for its urban tunnels and metro stations that overflow with commuters at rush hour, but are deserted the rest of the time . . . for its waffles, its chocolate, and its beer (phew)!

A less than flattering portrait of my city? Perhaps . . . but have I not already mentioned Belgian pragmatism and irony? I should probably have also warned you about the excessive modesty of ces gens-là of the flat country.

But is Brussels a noir city? The first response that comes to mind is the most bruxellois: “Well, no, maybe!” (a turn of phrase that translates, in the rest of the Francophone world, as, Yes, of course!); but reflection gives way to anxiety. From the Grand Place, preserved by the illustrious Freemasons of Belgium, to the legacy of Expo ’58; from the Brabant murders to the Heysel Stadium disaster, not to mention its judiciary history, Brussels is overflowing with stories and mysteries to feed any writer’s imagination. But does the city really spark the creativity of its own children? To ask the question is to plow full force into the wall of the Belgian inferiority complex, for if no one is a prophet in his or her own country, the Belgian is even less so. Belgian writers of every era have generally sought recognition in Paris, which has often served them well, considering the careers of Stanislas-André Steeman, Roger d’Arjac, Edmond Romazières, René Charles Oppitz, Paul Kinnet, and Jean Ray, to cite just a few authors who preceded the benchmark, the now inimitable (as Hergé is to the comic book genre) Georges Simenon. Faithful to this tradition, Belgian “genre” writers have blended, without fanfare, into the editorial landscape of their neighbors while preserving the sensibility—acquired beneath their low, gray sky so dear to Brel—unmistakable to any discerning reader.

Whether foreigners in Brussels, or bruxellois expatriates, Belgians from either region or community of Belgium; whether Francophone, Dutch, or Hispanic, the thirteen (we’re not superstitious in my city) contemporary authors found in this anthology are bruxellois at heart and have found the words—often sharp, always affectionate—to describe their love for the city that gives rhythm to their days. Whether practitioners of detective fiction, thrillers, fantasy; whether comic book authors or, even worse, journalists, they will take you for a ride that is sure to be dark, funny, bloody, harrowing, whimsical . . . in short, Belgian!

For our grand tour, please be seated, ladies and gentlemen readers, in Tram 33 . . . and no, there’s no rain in the forecast today, just a leaden sky; for that matter, considering the timetables of the STIB, it’s probably better to go on foot than to take public transport. We’ll explore the city center, that pentagonal surface defined by urban highways and a canal, home to the real old Brussels, the historic core. We’ll take a dainty stroll through an edifice that achieves the feat of being more vast and monolithic in style than St. Peter’s Basilica: the Palais de Justice. From there, it’s easy to glide down to the Marolles; then let your feet carry you from kabberdouch to stamcafé, as you wander in an ethereal, even surrealist mode through the heart of the city, and finally come full circle. Having whetted our appetites, we’ll play leapfrog along the boulevards to make our way to the inner ring road and tiptoe across the razor’s edge of the city, where blood, alcohol, and debauchery know how to coexist . . . or not. And if the life of the abattoir hasn’t sated you, you’ll have plenty of room to maneuver as you stray from the center and discover the oh-so-serene neighborhoods of the greater ring, home to our venerable European institutions above all suspicion.

One last piece of advice before setting you loose in the streets of my city—always keep in mind this little tune of local folklore, which will remind you that you’re indeed in Brussels and nowhere else:

J’suis bruxellois, voilà pourquoi / Bruxellois am I, and here is why
En vill’ je suis chez moi / I’m at home ’neath this sky
J’aim’ de flâner sur le boul’vard / And on my city’s boulevards
Au milieu des richards . . . / Where all the rich folk are
Mais bien plus qu’eux je suis heureux / But much more gay am I than they
Car je m’content’ de peu / At the end of the day
J’arrang’ ma vie selon mes sous, / I’m content with what I’ve got,
Je ne suis pas jaloux . . . / A jealous fellow I’m not . . .
—Jan de Baets, “L’Heureux Bruxellois”

Happy reading!



MICHEL DUFRANNE was born in Brussels in 1970. He is a workaholic who is constantly pursuing different career paths including headhunter, university professor, editor of science fiction and comics, and publishing consultant. He is currently a comics writer, and a book reviewer for a Belgian TV and radio show that focuses on thrillers and crime fiction novels. He is the editor ofBrussels Noir.

Posted: Aug 24, 2016

Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,