Flanders Sky by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Flanders Sky" was first published in the United Kingdom under a different title - "The Pretty How Town", one of the best book titles ever. I guess the American publishers were afraid that the "grammatically incorrect" title will result in decreased sales; after all what can one expect from an author who cannot even follow the most basic rules of syntax? While "Flanders Sky" is a beautiful and appropriate title, I much prefer the original, which comes from e.e. cummings' poem "anyone lived in a pretty how town" (I quote the first stanza of that stunning poem at the end of the review).
Not that the story is important in the novel - readers who are mainly interested in the plot may be disappointed - but here is the basic premise: Henri Castang, a high-ranking Commissaire in the French police, becomes a high-level functionary of the European Community in Brussels. The second sentence of the novel is "I had been given to understand, and very clearly, thanks, that I was both promoted and sacked, simultaneously". His erudite boss, Harold Claverhouse, the head of EC's Judicial Services, is arrested for murder and Castang becomes actively involved in the investigation and in the subsequent trial. Claverhouse's case becomes entangled with a domestic child abuse inquest, which involves Castang and his wife who do volunteer social work for an organization that helps runaway children
As usual, I find it a pleasure to read Mr. Freeling's quirky, stream-of-consciousness narrative. He muses about workings of the European Community, ridiculous attempts of intelligence services of various countries to spy on each other, and bureaucratic excesses and pitfalls. He also writes about politics and European history; the action takes place not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the "velvet revolution" in Prague. We read about Irish, French, and Flemish poetry, a Verdi's opera, and are offered a revealing look into the judicial procedure in Belgium, so very different from one in the United States. I have read the trial fragments three times, each time to find something new and brilliant. The book is deeply immersed in European history and culture, and it might be less appealing for a reader who does not have some personal connection with Europe.
While most of narration is from Castang's point of view, several chapters are told by Vera, Castang's Slovak-born wife, who defected to France while competing as a gymnast. These chapters are close to literary masterpieces - the unrestrained and seemingly disjointed stream of consciousness adds depth and power. The story of Vera's first visit to her native country is moving - maybe just for me, though; I had similar feelings when visiting my native country for the first time about a quarter of the century ago.
I love Nicolas Freeling's books. I share his bitter, cynical outlook on life (I am now exactly the same age, 64, as he was when writing this book) and I share his unabashed Europeanness. I just wish I had a tiny little bit of his literary talent. If I worked eight hours a day, day after day, for twenty years, I would not be able to produce even one page of such remarkable prose.
Here's the beginning of e.e. cumming's poem:
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
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