Monday 2 September 2013

Two Belgian Fables: The People Manager (2013)

From The Philosopher, Volume 101 No. 2 Autumn 2013

Two Belgian Fables
From the Age of Absurdity 

By Frank Adam

A one-eared donkey who practises the art of listening. A string of tormented visitors who come to confide in him. Forget Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, let alone Augustine's, and instead try two of Flemish author Frank Adam's donkey tales, as they breathe new life into the genre of the conte philosophique.* Originally published in the press and in book form (illustrated by Klaas Verplancke), even adapted for the stage and radio, the listening donkey travels the desert, the world, and the realms of romance and eroticism. But here he gets caught up in a Belgian Absurdistan.

Illustration by Klaas Verplancke

'If you want to live in the land of the Belgians…'

'All right, listen up, everyone! I am your people manager!' cried a voice in the pitch dark container. Whereupon the glaring beam of a torch zigzagged randomly over the dazed refugees and came to a halt on the donkey's ear.
    'I have accompanied you incognito in order to brief you about your destination shortly before arrival. As you may have noticed, the quantity of air available in this passenger cabin is not unlimited. I will therefore endeavour to keep it short, thus saving a corresponding amount of oxygen.
    May I inquire about your primary motives for your departure to Belgium?'

Primary motives

The donkey felt as if his pores, clogged with dust, sweat and grease after bobbing around in a dark, stuffy container for a week and a half, started leaking like broken taps all at once under the torch's burning glare.
    To his relief, the bright light swung away from his ear abruptly to direct itself at the refugees who were answering the question.
    'My father was murdered for political reasons.'
    'They raped and abused my mother.'
    'I am married.'
    'I was psychologically terrorised. A civil servant offered me a fraudulent deal on behalf of an international organised crime syndicate, but when I, given my innate integrity and oath of office, refused to accept, a charge was brought against my person, which is why I...'


'OK, I see you have all prepared moving and reasonably plausible life stories. However, there seem to be some misconceptions going around about Belgium and its inhabitants, especially concerning the manner in which you are to present yourselves there.
    Any rumours you might have heard about the Belgians being dour, suspicious, depressive, suicidal, inhospitable and paranoid, are – as far as their everyday demeanour and general disposition are concerned – not greatly exaggerated.
    Nevertheless, I would urge you not to take a prejudiced stance towards them, and to consider viewing the situation from their perspective.

The situation from the Belgian perspective

Ever since the Romans and many rulers before them, the Belgians have endured an almost uninterrupted history of occupation, social exploitation and genocide.
    In this current era, they live under a capitalist dictatorship.
    The state, despite officially comprising an impressive construction of regions and sections, is in practice virtually non-existent.
    On the national stage, politicians act out plays and recite monologues by local leaders, known as 'mayors', who accumulate ever more power and capital in their respective city-states – or 'metropolises' – through clan networks.
    Art and journalism have been demoted to the decorating and copying trades.
    The economy serves to block the production process; the banks sabotage the economy. Educators no longer educate; public broadcasters broadcast nonsense.
    In the bloom of old age, employees are dumped into the dungeons of retirement, to waste away with boredom before their time.

Belgium, you must realise, is in a state of decline.
    However, seeing that the successive crises plaguing Belgium are spreading across the planet like a virus – in other words: that all people will become Belgians, and that the whole world will become one great, desperate Belgistan in the near future – I shall give you the following advice.

If you want to live in the land of the Belgians...

If you want to live in the land of the Belgians, ask them not for asylum – speak of the help and development you bring them.
    Hence, if you want to work in the land of the Belgians, do not talk to the Belgians about the crisis, but make mention of the solutions you offer:
    Of the languages and endurance of oppression you have learned from your oppressors; of the hardship that has strengthened you; of the malnutrition that has protected you from cancer and obesity; of the primitive traditions that have saved your family from ruin; of the marital morals that have spared your wife indecent exposure; of your numerous offspring that will feed Belgium's elderly; of your youthful strength that will safeguard their old age.
    Do not complain to the Belgians: 'My father was murdered,' 'My mother raped,' 'My life threatened.'
    Tell them that you want to use your first-hand experience with injustice to help them rebuild their corrupt, disordered justice state.
    And finally, if they ask you who I am, recommend me to the Belgians as a "people manager". For regulating lives and managing people has been in my blood since time immemorial.

Due protocol

Please listen carefully; we are about to reach the quay of a small Belgian fishing port.
    The mayor knows of your arrival and, after accepting a small financial token of respect, has promised to receive you with healthy curiosity and due protocol.
    Given the depleted oxygen supply in the passenger cabin, I would now advise against any more idle conversations or dropping any fresh faeces on the floor.
    The crucial thing is to make a healthy, balanced and orderly first impression.
    May I trust that we are in agreement on this?'


The light blinding the refugees when the doors swung open might as easily have been the sun as a searchlight. Each of the burly, self-satisfied men in their smart uniforms could have passed for the mayor – and at the same time, none of them.
    The donkey was among the last to leave the container.


On hearing a voice ask 'Him over there, is he with you?' and seeing an eleven-year-old boy huddled in a corner of the vacated container, he experienced a stinging itch in his missing ear.
    Whether the boy's father had been murdered and his mother violated on the scene, or whether his maternal uncle had been executed by a local gang of criminals, was impossible to tell by his expressionless face.
    But the stump of an arm with which he was trying to hide his dark features was, the donkey knew from experience, not shaped by Mother Nature's artistic hand, but hewn, sculpted and finished with the surgical precision of an exotic chopping knife; an axe or machete.
    'Is he with you?' the voice repeated, conveying less patience and friendly interest than before, but the donkey answered 'No,' emphatically and decisively, 'you are very much mistaken.'


Outside on the windy quay, giving the customs officers a detailed account of the misunderstanding that had caused him to end up in the container, but also much later, travelling to his first real Belgian tourist attraction while leafing through his guide book and enjoying the most exquisitely refined Belgian chocolate in a first-class train carriage, the donkey was struggling with all his mental powers against the machete he had seen, in a flash of clairvoyance, blinking in the child soldier's other, unsevered hand, the fingers of which were clenched with unerring determination into a lethal, merciless, child soldier's fist.

And now read about: The Intellectuals of Brussels . . .

About the author: Frank Adam wrote the Belgian Fables while he was writer-in-residence at the European Writers' House Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the Ventspils International Writers' and Translators' House in Letvia, and the Villa Marguerite Yourcenar on the Mont Noir in France. His Belgian Fables, illustrated by Klaas Verplancke, are published in Dutch and French in Belgian and French media.  The book  will be published in autumn 2013 by Uitgeverij Vrijdag (Antwerp).

* The translation into English  from the Dutch is by Vivien D. Glass. A version translated from Dutch into French by Michel Perquy is also available, here.

Address for correspondence: Frank Adam email <>
His website is: and the website of Klaas Verplancke, the illustrator, is:

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