High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands


High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

Shimanto Reza’s Choice: Ivo Michiels and Vincent Van Meenen
The Translator’s Pick

Shimanto Reza’s Choice: Ivo Michiels and Vincent Van Meenen

Every month, a translator of Dutch into English gives literary tips by answering two questions: which translated book by a Flemish or Dutch author should everyone read? And, which book deserves an English translation? To get publishers excited, an excerpt has already been translated. Shimanto Reza wants to whet your reading appetite with an innovative novel that inspired a generation of Flemish writers and a story about the shadowy world of bitcoins and cryptocurrency.

Must-read: ‘Book Alpha’ by Ivo Michiels

Book Alpha by Belgian writer Ivo Michiels is the opening novella of what became his four-part The Alpha Cycle. It works perfectly as a standalone book, excavating one wartime theme: that of the humiliation of the brutalised. It explores this humiliation down to the physical and emotional experience of the trembling, then tentatively hopeful victim, and up to its almost universal form, captured in epiphanic moments when all faces become indistinguishable and time collapses.

The story starts in medias res during World War II. The protagonist, the older brother, is trudging through the mud with his younger siblings. He gave a hesitant, then determined yes to lead them to a vague promise of safety, while struggling as much as them to keep it together. The novel then snakes between key moments in the boy’s life. The war’s arbitrary brutality is shown to feel like an amplification of prior experiences: from death threats at school to a gang beating when a girl’s embrace was expected, but also the boy’s own participation in the shaming and beating of an outsider at a party. Book Alpha confronts the mud and spilled blood on the ground – and in our hearts, if you will – and with disarming vulnerability welcomes in sincerity and hope, too, while never turning sappy. This is a slim book with a wide emotional scope.

Michiels’ spiralling, generous prose carries us through the story’s unmarked transitions. The resulting unexpected connections contribute to the book’s unity, creating a systematic X-ray tracing all the marks of humiliation left in this young person’s mind and body.

Adrienne Dixon’s translation is available in a combined edition with book two of the cycle, Orchis Militaris. After Book Alpha, you can simply turn the page and keep reading deeper into Michiels’ world.

Ivo Michiels, Book Alpha, translated by Adrienne Dixon, Twayne, 1979, 147 pages

To be translated: ‘0xBlixa’ by Vincent Van Meenen

Vincent Van Meenen is a Belgian writer who, like his protagonist Paul, alias 0xBlixa, doesn’t mind taking risks. His 0xBlixa (Das Mag, 2023) is written as a string of DMs, and tells the story of a crypto investor, whose fortune is based on what he does on his laptop in his living room. And it all started with a fifty-dollar welcome bonus on pokeronline.com. This short novel lays bare the effects of our online lives, by exploring their extremes.

First, we are shown the successes an information-based reality permits. Paul is living out the motto that, today, anyone can get rich, regardless of their identity or background – if they’re willing to read and apply the right self-help advice, if they dare to be ruthless when ‘the herd’ shrinks back. And there’s a digital literary success, too, in demonstrating that a great novel can be written in a fraction of the usual word count by embracing the intuitive grammar of instant messaging.

0xBlixa sharply conveys the pared-down narrative without becoming stark or overworked: the moving personal story of Paul, a layered and complex protagonist, feels like it gets a generous amount of space. Even a ruthless ‘builder’ can be laid low by a wisdom tooth, or a best friend. Van Meenen’s fourth novel strikes a masterful balance between digital-age experiment and novelistic excavation of the fleshy human hearts the ones and zeros grew from.

Vincent Van Meenen, 0xBlixa, Das Mag, 2023, 168 pages

Excerpt from ‘0xBlixa’, translated by Shimon Reza


my name is 0xBlixa
I am a venture capitalist angel investor
quite a mouthful
and I’m looking for inner peace

made my fortune ages ago
but this week I was in some real pain
had my wisdom tooth pulled
the hospital in Leuven was full
we’ve got a slot in forty days
that’s what they said
and we don’t have an emergency department

but I’m not Jesus am I
what am I going to pop painkillers for forty days
forty days wandering around the desert
what will that do to my liver
the nurse on the line took a beat
you can contact us every day
to check about any cancellations

my sister pulled some strings
fixed me up with a surgeon in Bruges
good thing she could see me sooner

travelled there this morning
a good two hours by train
a consultation first
well well
all the way from Leuven the oral specialist said
just liquid foods and no talking for ten days
because you grind them she said
you grind your teeth at night
don’t worry about it

that’s how you process
all that you experienced during the day
but it’s bad for your jaw muscles
your jaw muscles need to rest
let them hang slack during the day
avoid using your mouth
we’ll pull your tooth the day after tomorrow
then she hit my wisdom tooth with a little hammer
and I screamed my lungs out

the consultation took ten minutes
now I’m on the train back
second class through West and East Flanders
two of our most scenic provinces
past the pastures and the rivers
and after Brussels there’s the forests
nice for long walks
which I love when I don’t have a toothache
packing as little as possible and setting out into nature
I almost froze to death once
what do they call it
got to watch out for that

looking out the window with my juice box
and my single slice of cake which I can’t eat
waiting for the pain to recede
could check twitter


just lazing about
at ours
feeling in the zone
slowly waking up
and then a meme
something to start the day with
a joke or some project
that’s going strong something nice
to offer them or something trending
maybe a sad share about our private life
because we’ve all got one haven’t we
a private life
and sad yes
it doesn’t matter if it’s sad or not your private life
is the key to your followers’ hearts

if there was some NFT that could remove a toothache
I’d be sweeping the floor already

sweeping the floor
for the normies – the floor price is the price
of the cheapest NFTs in a collection
and someone who sweeps the floor
buys up a portion of this collection
to raise the floor price
rising floor

I like to take deep breaths online
on the internet my name is 0xBlixa
and my real name is Paul

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