the book

Chapel Road
"A large frog in a very small literary pond" said the American journalist Cyra McFadden about Louis Paul Boon in her article on Chapel Road at its first print in the English translation in 1972. This English translation opened up this revolutionary modernist novel for the international audience and made of Boon a candidate for the Nobel prize. The appreciation he never received due to his sudden death in 1979.

According to the author, Chapel Road is the book about the childhood of Ondine [. . .] about her brother Valeer-Traleer with his monstrous head wobbling through life this way and that. But the book is about a lot more than that. It is also the story of Louis Paul Boon, an author working on a novel entitled Chapel Road, surrounded by his colorful group of friends. His readers and companions include the painter Tippetotje, who habitually works a naked woman into her paintings, and Johan Janssens, the journalist and poet who is fired from the paper for refusing to agree with the Capitalists, the Socialists or the Ultra-Marxists. Beyond that, Chapel Road includes a retelling of the myth of Reynard the fox and Isengrinus the wolf, a tale that underscores the greed, stupidity, hypocrisy, pride and lust motivating the other characters of the book. Chapel Road is a pool, a sea, a chaos.

In retrospect, this novel is a showcase for all Boon’s qualities. It unites his historical interests with his tendency towards short fierce fragments, and even salacious elements are present. As in so much of the work of this Flemish master, a major theme of Chapel Road is the ultimate failure of the fine socialist ideals which informed countless efforts to improve the position of ‘ordinary’ workers over the last hundred-and-fifty years. The novel is set in a period of growing social unrest and tells the story of Ondine, who was born in a poverty-stricken house in Chapel Road just before the turn of the century. Despite her origins she has set her sights on a rich and sophisticated existence but ends up marrying Oscar who is poor but idealistic. Inevitably both become disillusioned by the realities of life.
Within this story Boon interweaves the commentary and experiences of a number of modern people, ‘modern’ here meaning the post-War era, a time when socialist concepts made way for bitterness about the increasingly middle-class mentality which accompanied heightened levels of prosperity. Although the book is more than forty years old, Boon’s inimitably skilful style gives it a contemporary feel. His editing techniques move the reader effortlessly back and forth through time and his very personal mixture of literary and popular language adds variety. Humour and passion are the typical qualities of this author whose message that little men are better off distancing themselves from political systems and splendid-sounding slogans may be more applicable today than we like to think. Although Chapel Road’s ending is gloomy and gives little hope for the characters or their creator, the fire with which the story has been told still gives off a fierce glow.