Monday, September 22, 2008

In Memoriam Jean-Marie Berckmans (1953-2008)

Writing, to Jean-Marie Berckmans, was a serious matter. Whoever witnessed one of his tirades against unambiguous realistic fiction, knew that he never joked about it. Berckmans, who died on August 31, always wanted to achieve more, much more. He wanted to make a diagnosis of modern times. His world was caught in a permanent state of siege. Berckmans shared that ink-black despair with one of his favourite authors, the Italian writer and politician Leonardo Sciascia. In the depressing seventies, Sciascia was a member of the parliamentary commission investigating the execution of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades. For a couple of years, Berckmans worked as a shoe salesman in that sultry and disunited Italy, an experience that assumed mythical proportions when he talked about it. Not uncommonly did he quote from the ‘Divina Commedia’ by Dante or did he start singing a schmalzy popular Italian song.

His eclectic knowledge was considerable, a quality he often hid behind the mask of an alter ego. ‘Pafke het meest complete mafke’ hides a serious writer with a brilliant feel for music. That is how, in the nineties, he became one of the most important stylists of post-war Dutch literature.

It was the unsurpassed Walter Soethoudt who published Berckmans’ first books at the end of the seventies: the prose poems ‘Tranen voor Coltrane’ (Tears for Coltrane) and the paranoid masterpiece ‘Geschiedenis van de revolutie’ (History of the Revolution). Only in the blessed year 1989, did Berckmans pick up the thread. With the stories he wrote in that period, he made a name for himself as a chronicler of the seamy side. He was compared with Maarten Biesheuvel and Jan Arends. And in addition, Kees van Kooten deservedly praised the great ‘street poetry credibility’ of the weird guy from Leopoldsburg. But, for this reason, Berckmans was also to serve a life sentence as an ‘honest and authentic writer.’ With the collection ‘Bericht uit Klein Konstantinopel’ (Message from Little Constantinople) (1996), Berckmans showed that he wanted to take another road. Not the roguish modernisms of Kees van Kooten, but Paul van Ostaijen’s modernism. The conventions of the classic story were too tight and he was no longer satisfied with standard Dutch. His helping hand in Circus Bulderdrang has certainly carried much weight. Circus Bulderdrang could not have existed without punk and Nick Cave, but was certainly not the umpteenth variant of a self-repeating pop culture. The unique prehistoric rowdiness had much more to do with Dada and the Cabaret Voltaire. That is how the ‘cult writer’ Jean-Marie Berckmans came to perform as a hybrid of Motörhead’s Lemmy, VMO leader Bert Eriksson and Johnny ‘the Selfkicker’ van Doorn. A skinny man, wearing a motor helmet and black sunglasses, smoking like a chimney and yelling he was ‘the man of steel’. But language was the only weapon he used to confront the world.

His stories more and more resembled apocryphal Bible texts, in which he yelled out the results of his analysis of the ghosts of modern time. ‘As op jazzwoensdag’ (Ashes on a Jazz Wednesday) (2003) was a climax. That prophetic description of Hell on Earth, which he called ‘Biotope Zero’, was dedicated to his mother and his friend Albert Szukalski (1945-2000), the ‘ghost sculptor’. Destiny wanted Berckmans and Szukalski to die at the same young age and their graves to be in the same part of the graveyard. The letters he wrote to a.o. his dead parents and to Kamiel Vanhole, who died in June, were something completely different. That correspondence was as grand as it was painfully straightforward. With these letters, he competed with Gerard Reve, the ultimate letter writer.

Berckmans confused some of us with his multifaceted talent. His texts are often read as purely autobiographical, which is legitimate, but at the same time harms his great, almost non-Flemish ambition as a writer. Although JMH Berckmans’ legend grew larger and larger, the writer did not succeed in reaching the larger crowd, despite all the efforts of the people who had supported him all these years. It will always be a mystery why Berckmans never received any literary awards during his lifetime. And now he’s dead, the uncrowned king of Dutch avant-garde literature. Long live the king.

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