You know what goes good with a mimosas? A book! Check out our interview with renowned European author Bob Van Laerhoven and his new book ‘Return to Hiroshima.’
1. What was the inspiration for your novel ‘Return to Hiroshima?’
So many years after WWII, our world-wide collective memory still recalls the horrible “Übermensch”- experiments the Nazis conducted in their concentration camps. When, some years ago, I read, by coincidence, “Unit 731 Testimony: Japan’s Wartime Human Experimentation Program” by Hal Gold, it became clear to me that the Secret Service medical unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army went even further in their gruesome medical experiments, hidden in obscure parts of the continent, than the Germans. Obsessed as the Japanese society was with the “bushido-code,” the way of the warrior, the Japanese warrior had to be superior to all other living beings at all costs, and many experiments, some very esoteric, had to lead in the eyes of the fanatic unit 731, and its military mandators, to the creation of a super-race. This realization was the starting point for the novel.
2. How does your novel about WWII differ from the stories that your audience is used to?
Mind you, this is not a novel about WWII, in the sense that the action takes place in the nineties – when Japan faced a severe economic crisis – and, apart from a few flashbacks, not during the war itself. “Return to Hiroshima” is a novel about the dark recesses of the Japanese culture, which were intensified – and unveiled! – by the war. It’s also a story about a unique turning point in human history and its results on the human psyche. Since the nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, we realize that we are able to destroy our planet completely, which was not the case before. That total self-destruction aspect of the nuclear bomb has embedded itself deeply in our sub consciousness. “Return to Hiroshima” symbolizes that dark attraction to self-hatred and self-annihilation we hide in our hearts. The evil that penetrates the novel is the accumulation of our civilization, fascinated as we are by its Janus face. A good example is one of the novel’s characters, the Yakuza-boss with the nickname “Rokurobei” – a rare, male, demon in Japanese mythology – who suffers from his own unbridled lust for violence, while simultaneously using it knowingly in his relentless quest for what he calls “self-realization.” His madness is frightening and sublime at the same time.
3. Do you feel that being from Europe gives you a different perspective about the war?
You know, I’m sure that many Americans have heard from their parents or grandparents stories of how they came to rescue us Europeans from the German occupation. That must have given them a good feeling. But the stories we Flemings heard from our parents or grandparents were different. Not only the Jews in our society were deported by the German Occupation Forces, but also a lot of Flemish people suffered horribly in German concentration camps. But even more sinister was the chasm that the war created in our society: Flemings being a Germanic race, a part of our society reacted positively to the Nazi-German ideals of Aryan supremacy. Simultaneously, a lot of us were against the German occupiers which meant that in the same family a brother could fight his brother, or a father battled his children. This situation lasted for years and became a painful scar on our national psyche. Even now, it remains a bitter page of our history. No wonder that I, as a Flemish novelist, wanted to write a book about the consequences of the racist ideologies that dominated WWII and still exercise their power, in different disguises but on the whole with the same fundamentals, so many decades later… I picked Japan as a striking, but in the West less known, example of what extremist thinking can lead to…
4. What advice would you give to writers who are trying to write their first novel?
There is one mistake that almost every writer who’s “new on the block” makes: refining and editing what he/she wrote yesterday before getting on with the story. After 37 novels, I can say with unmistakably certainty: please, don’t do that. You can get easily caught up in eternally setting straight style, details, grammar, etc., in your text, while the necessary “juice” for telling your story dries up. In a first draft, get on with the story, go-go-go. Write your story, crystal-clearly knowing that the writing isn’t good, that there are far too many digressions, that the characters aren’t full-blown yet, and so on…You know all that, but this is not the phase in which you must correct it…Don’t worry, be happy, just write on and on and on… Until your story is egg-shaped and you have reached the end. And then, and only then, by all means, edit, refine, polish over and over again, feeling safe in the knowledge that the bulk of your story is finished. You have to behave like a sculptor: first, you must “see” the soul hidden in the stone, and then you start to sculpt and to refine, to make the soul beautiful, enticing, alluring…
5. Tell us more about your next projects.
I’m almost 65 now, and I have published a lot of books. I can feel my creative powers getting slowly exhausted. I have become known in some countries in Europe as an author who writes cross-over between literature and the suspense novel. I’ve used the noir genre to scout the dark recesses of the Human Condition, to search the reason why we are such a twisted and dangerous race, and I’ve done so for more than three decades. It’s strange, but for what could become my last literary endeavor, I would like to write a cross-over between literature and the fairy-tale, a tale with, perhaps, a bit more of light in it, of magic, of wonder, of yearning, and love… It’s slowly forming in me… I would like to call it, if I can write it, “Mary-of-Mice”…
Bob van Laerhoven was born on August 8th 1953 in the sandy soil of Antwerp’s Kempen, a region in Flanders (Belgium),bordering to The Netherlands, where according to the cliché ‘pig-headed clodhoppers’ live. This perhaps explains why he started to write stories at a particularly young age. A number of his stories were published in English, French, German, Spanish and Slovenian.
Van Laerhoven made his debut as a novelist in 1985 with “Nachtspel – Night Game.” He quickly became known for his ‘un-Flemish’ style: he writes colourful, kaleidoscopic novels in which the fate of the individual is closely related to broad social transformations. His style slowly evolved in his later novels to embrace more personal themes while continuing to branch out into the world at large. International flair has become his trademark.
Bob Van Laerhoven became a full-time author in 1991. The context of his stories isn’t invented behind his desk, rather it is rooted in personal experience. As a freelance travel writer, for example, he explored conflicts and trouble-spots across the globe from the early 1990s to 2004. Echoes of his experiences on the road also trickle through in his novels. Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Mozambique, Burundi, Lebanon, Iraq, Myanmar… to name but a few.
During the Bosnian war, Van Laerhoven spent part of 1992 in the besieged city of Sarajevo. Three years later he was working for MSF – Doctors without frontiers – in the Bosnian city of Tuzla during the NATO bombings. At that moment the refugees arrived from the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. Van Laerhoven was the first writer from the Low Countries to be given the chance to speak to the refugees. His conversations resulted in a travel book: “Srebrenica. Getuigen van massamoord – Srebrenica. Testimony to a Mass Murder.” The book denounces the rape and torture of the Muslim population of this Bosnian-Serbian enclave and is based on first-hand testimonies. He also concludes that mass murders took place, an idea that was questioned at the time but later proven accurate.
All these experiences contribute to Bob Van Laerhoven’s rich and commendable oeuvre, an oeuvre that typifies him as the versatile author of novels, travel stories, theatre pieces, biographies, non-fiction, letters, columns, articles… He is also a prize-winning author: in 2007 he won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best crime-novel of the year with “De Wraak van Baudelaire – Baudelaire’s Revenge.”
“Baudelaire’s Revenge” has been published in the USA, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium. Russian and Italian translations are in the making. In 2014, a second French translation of one of his titles has been published in France and Canada. “Le Mensonge d’Alejandro” is set in a fictitious South-American dictatorship in the eighties. The “junta” in this novel is a symbol for the murderous dictatorships in South-America (Chile and Argentine, to mention two)during the seventies and beginning of the eighties. In The Netherlands and Belgium, his novel “De schaduw van de Mol” (The Shadow Of The Mole) was published in November 2015. The novel is set in the Argonne-region of France in 1916. An English translation of the novel will be available in the US in 2017.
“Baudelaire’s Revenge” is the winner of the USA BEST BOOK AWARDS 2014 in the category Fiction: mystery/suspense.
In April 2015 The Anaphora Literary Press published the collection of short stories “Dangerous Obsessions” in the US, Australia, the UK, and Canada, in paperback, e-book, and hardcover. “Dangerous Obsessions” was voted “best short story collection of 2015 in The San Diego Book Review. In May 2017, Месть Бодлерa, the Russian edition of “Baudelaire’s Revenge” was published. “Dangerous Obsessions” has been published in 2017 in Italian, Portuguese, and Swedish editions. Spanish and Chinese translations will follow in 2018.
photo by Studio Schreve.