Dimitri Verhulst’s Christ’s Entry Into Brussels is part moral fable, part vitriolic and darkly humorous analysis of modern Belgium. Just like the Ensor painting from which it takes its name, this book is not so much about a visitation from the Son of God but about holding a mirror up to the society he will return to find. The Second Coming is not announced with any great fanfare “[t]here it was, tucked away between an item about an attempt on the world hotdog-eating record and one listing the latest antics of a female pop singer. Christ was coming to Brussels on the twenty-first of July”. However a subtle change begins to happen that very day – people speak to each other on public transport for the first time in living memory – and the mood of the nation begins to have a dramatic overhaul.
Our narrator is sleepwalking through his life. His marriage is dissolving, his relationship with his only surviving parent practically non-existent, his desire to limit his interactions with other human beings apparently his primary driver. He fluctuates between resentment and cynical detachment, yet as the novella progresses our narrator too gets caught up in the swelling of hope and national pride as the fateful day approaches. He buys his wife flowers. He visits a neighbour for dinner. He dares to dream of a better future for a nation that he has little patience with or respect for. After all, if Jesus Christ has chosen the national holiday to appear – perhaps the place isn’t so bad after all? Our narrator is not alone in jumping on the Jesus-joy bandwagon as “[d]efeatists and kiss-my-arsists everywhere indulged in childish excitement, the sceptics put the mockers under lock and key – it was a moving sight”
Not content with ringing the birds and branding the cows, humanity has ‘moved on’ to cataloguing itself. As the wonderful Neil deGrasse Tyson has bemoaned “Had to wait in line to renew a Passport allowing me to visit members of my own species across artificially conceived borders”. Verhulst quickly turns his satiric gaze to Transit Centre 127 where illegal immigrants are held – “Illegal: imagine hearing it about yourself! That your existence is unauthorised! That your birth was non-statutory! That you weren’t actually allowed to exist!” Among those waiting to be deported back to the only places on earth where they are less welcome than in Belgium, the authorities hope to find a translator to help them communicate with Jesus. Remembering Jesus’s fondness for children, they select an eleven year old girl who is soon plagued with nightmares that she does something wrong and loses out on the permanent resident permits she and her family will receive as payment. Arabic, ancient Aramaic, it’s all the same right? The authorities disregard for the differences in these languages is all the more ludicrous given the detailed lampooning of the cumbersome politics surrounding Belgium’s multilingual public administration.
Our narrator’s acid tongue covers the whole of Belgian society, but if he has one bugbear, one ultimate baddy, it has to be the Catholic Church. Several passages throughout the short book are devoted to it, and they are part of the reason this book is bound to resonate with other Irish readers. It starts off relatively mild, pointing out that while everyone from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Marxists were (however improbably) delightedly preparing for the return to Christ to Earth’s soil, that Catholic authorities were enduring the preparation with ‘sour faces’ despite the fact that:
… you would have expected the leading figures of this ancient institution to be delirious with joy upon the arrival of their Shepherd. And they could definitely have used a religious revival: they celebrated their Sunday Masses for a few drooling bags of bones, the increasing vacancy of their places of worship was constantly obliging the National Trust to rezone a church here and a basilica there as a discotheque or fashion boutique.
As tourists and religious fanatics pile into Brussels, injecting the city with enthusiasm, joy and a whole lot of money, Catholic bishops grow ever more grey faced and apparently fearful at the thought of facing the Son of God in person. It should be noted here that Christians have nothing to fear from this book (Iona Institute nutjobs definitely won’t be fans however). Jesus, and indeed Christian belief, is never attacked – but the terrible deeds that terrible people have done in the name of Christ with total societal impunity are justly, and repeatedly, highlighted. As our narrator is surprised by his enthusiasm for the return of someone he has long since ceased to believe existed, an entire convent of nuns who had sexually abused the children in their care commit suicide – a “cheap and cowardly mea culpa” which does not surprise him in the least. After all:
This was the same institution that had used the search for the Holy Grail as a cheap excuse to indulge itself in the excesses of pure racism. The same institution that derived great sadistic pleasure from the Inquisition, flagrantly raping young girls because virgins weren’t allowed to be burnt at the stake, rampaging through villages to rip open corsets and squeeze breasts in search of marks from the Devil’s tongue. The same institution that knew before others about the Holocaust, the deportation and gassing of an endless stream of people, mostly Jews, and kept quiet, because it was easier that way. That same institution – because after all these years it really was the still the same, that was the only conclusion we could draw – now remained as silent as the grave about all the paedophilia scandals within the Church. The psychological mutilation of children was, and remained, subordinate to the reputation of the Holy Church, amen.
Laid out in fourteen short ‘stations’ Verhulst’s Christ’s Entry Into Brussels is a pacy read. It’s also a short, sharp kick to the head, and I haven’t encountered such pitch-black satire since Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Highly recommended.