Patrick French


Patrick French (1966) is een Britse geschiedkundige en schrijver. French was zestien toen hij voor het eerst de Dalai Lama ontmoette. Sindsdien heeft hij altijd een grote belangstelling gehad voor de Tibetaanse en Indiase cultuur en voor de geschiedenis van het Europese kolonialisme.

Patrick French ontving voor zijn werk verscheidene prestigieuze prijzen. Zijn debuutroman Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer (1994) werd bekroond met de Somerset Maugham Award en de Royal Society of Literature’s W.H. Heinemann Prize. Zijn tweede boek Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division (1997) werd eveneens goed onthaald. Tibet, Tibet (2003) is opgevat als een persoonlijke queeste naar het ware Tibet.

Tijdens zijn verblijf in Passa Porta's schrijversflat in 2005 werkte hij aan The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul (2008). Het boek werd door redacteurs van The New York Times Book Review uitgeroepen tot één van de beste tien boeken van 2008 en won de National Book Critics Circle Award en de Hawthornden Prize. In 2012 verscheen het boek India: A Portrait,  ‘een persoonlijke biografie van 1,2 miljard mensen’. 

Patrick French’ werk wordt in het Nederlands uitgegeven bij Uitgeverij Atlas Contact.





2005 is not the best of times to be Belgian. Look at the reports in the foreign press these days. General Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the UN force in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, complains that Belgian soldiers under his command cheerfully boasted that they "knew how to kick nigger ass in Africa." The memoirs of Sabine Dardenne top the bestseller lists around the world, detailing the years it took to bring her persecutor to trial after crimes that would be sadistic even by American standards. Belgium's secret service, we learn, have had their guns confiscated after an incident when an officer shot at a colleague. Meanwhile, fresh publicity is given to bygone killings in the Congo; and since King Leopold II, the architect of the exploitation, was a keen paedophile who would send to the market in London for young girls, an impression has been created that the various phenomena may be connected, and linked in some way to Belgium's unwillingness to face its own past. This is unfortunate, given that the country is 175 years old this year and anxious to celebrate its traditions of tolerance and modesty.

Brussels is an attractive city, but one that chooses to represent itself with the emblem of a small boy urinating. His image is all over the place. It is hard to escape little Manneken Pis, though Belgians do not notice him; he is part of the street furniture. Walking down the street one evening, I was accosted by three large ladies wearing flowery turbans and kaftans. One said to me, in broken French, "Nous cherchons...the baby...qui pisse." She imitated the urinating boy, quite impressively. I pointed her in the right direction. The little fellow is on mugs and posters, as a statuette in the tourist shops, on postcards and towels, on keyrings and on computers, floating about as an angelic screensaver. Most disturbingly, he is a corkscrew. I suppose all this must have been cute once upon a time, but today it is merely irritating and weird. When I suggested to the movers and shakers of Brussels that the statue might be updated (Kim Clijsters and the Singing Nun would, I believe, make superior public micturators) they refused to take the proposal seriously.

Aside from being Belgium's capital, Brussels has the good luck to be the headquarters of the European Union, a faceless creation that sits in its own portion of the city (known - colonially - as the European District) and stares out at its subjects from tall, shiny buildings. As a coalition of two discrete cultures that has endured invasion during two world wars, it is understandable that the Belgian state endorses European federation enthusiastically. Belgium knows that its security depends on co-operation across national borders. Coming from Britain, an island which has increasing economic, social and cultural affinity with the United States, such an idea was new to me. Reading a British tabloid (for example: the Sun front page greeted the election of Pope Benedict XVI with the headline ‘FROM HITLER YOUTH TO PAPA RATZI') produces an impression that federalism is an unwanted and dangerous venture.

For a patriotic Belgian like Christiane Wymeersch, whom I met in the leafy suburb of Tervuren, this perceived misrepresentation is baffling. ‘I do not understand why the English dislike the European Union. It is a way of making sure Europe stays at peace,' she told me. Mrs Wymeersch was on her way out of an exhibition called ‘Memory of Congo: The Colonial Era' at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, which she was visiting with her husband Willem on a cold spring morning. They were a retired couple, dressed politely in autumnal colours in the Belgian way. I asked Mr Wymeersch what he had thought of the exhibition; he shrugged and gave a thin smile. Mrs Wymeersch struggled to articulate an answer on his behalf. ‘It's very difficult. I read a book once about King Leopold II,' she said. ‘I started to talk about it to a family friend and he just said, ‘oh no, please.' In Belgium, people don't like to talk about it.'

The legacy of imperialism is a complex and embarrassing subject in most European countries, and one that provokes constant reappraisal. The difficulty in Belgium is that there is no positive legacy from the Congo adventure, except in the fantasy version that exists in the public mind.

In 1885 King Leopold II took over a land mass seventy-six times the size of Belgium, anxious, as he put it, ‘to secure for ourselves a slice of this magnificent African cake.' He ran the Congo Free State, as the territory was laughably named, not as a government enterprise but as his personal fiefdom, systematically looting it of rubber and ivory. The author Joseph Conrad, no anti-imperialist, described what he saw there as ‘the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience'. Since the early records of Leopold's rule were destroyed on his orders in 1908, when he was forced to transfer the land to the Belgian government, it is impossible to gain a complete picture of what took place. What we know is chilling, even by the sickly standards of late 19th century Africa.

Control over the Congo depended on a ruthless mercenary army, the Force Publique, garrisoned in several hundred military posts across the country. A system of forced labour was established, with each village required to gather a set amount of rubber each week. Payment, when it came, was in the form of cloth or beads. Any hint of rebellion was punished swiftly by taking hostages, burning homesteads or killing. Victims would be hunted down and shot, their right hands being cut off as evidence of death. In some cases the hands of the dead would be smoked to preserve them for presentation to the relevant official. The historian Adam Hochschild, whose book King Leopold's Ghost was published in 1998 to grave murmurs among Belgian historians, claims that the deaths caused by murder, starvation and disease, combined with the corresponding fall in the birth rate, reduced the population of the Congo by as much as ten million.

The ‘Memory of Congo' exhibition has been widely heralded in the foreign press as a fresh, even daring, attempt by Belgian officialdom to come to terms with its own past. The Royal Museum was founded by King Leopold and built on the proceeds of the rape of the Congo in a splendid park at Tervuren, ‘pour l'etude de l'Afrique Centrale.' Perhaps the visiting foreign journalists saw a different exhibition, or perhaps they only read a press release, but what I found at Tervuren was a disgrace.

The main part of the museum is filled with empty spaces, random African ephemera, moth-eaten flora and fauna, a shop selling junk and a carved wall listing the 1,508 Belgians who died in the Congo during Leopold's time. The ‘Memory of Congo' exhibition was formless, and partial. We were told about the colonial lottery which raised money to fund the colony. We were told about priests and seminaries, about anthropologists and nuns. We were told about the influence of the Congolese rumba on Cuban music, and about the chaos that accompanied the end of Belgian rule. We were told by a face on a video screen that, "The boys [which I took to mean servants] liked white people - they were well fed and well housed. Most Congolese who experienced that period don't have negative feelings to the whites." There was nothing about forced labour, nothing about the scale and purpose of the cruelty, and nothing about the reality of early Belgian rule in the Congo. All we learned, in fact, was that this was a ‘controversial period' and a ‘turbulent chapter in history.'

Walking back to my apartment from the tram station at Beurs in the darkness, I tripped forcefully over an obstacle that was embedded into the pavement. It turned out to be a metal statue of a dog, with its leg cocked. As to why the dog was there, and why it was urinating, I have no answer.

Patrick French, Brussels, 2005



Nederlandse vertaling opgenomen in Aankomen in Brussel.Schrijvers op bezoek, cahier van Het beschrijf verkrijgbaar in de boekhandel.

Passa Porta
14.03.05 > 28.03.05
Villa Hellebosch
15.04.13 > 1.05.13

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