By Dimitri Verhulst
Translated from Dutch by David Colmer
Portobello Books 2010.
Enduring love in a remote Flanders village is given a quirky twist, in this novella by Dimitri Verhulst. Translated from Dutch by David Colmer, it doesn’t lose any of its magic or immediacy in English. The story opens with the beautiful and forlorn widow Madame Verona, who decides to make one final trek down the hill from her wooden house, that’s encircled by ageing pine woods, one freezing February day. She’s old and knows that she can’t get back up the hill to her home. With clear-eyed awareness, she departs with a faithful stray dog at her side.
The story then shifts back decades to when she was young. Her dalliance and later marriage to Monsieur Potter, a composer who is prone to bouts of extreme melancholy. They both live in domestic happiness for a couple of years. Attached at the hip, they visit the village together and mingle with the locals. Later, he is diagnosed with an incurable disease. Deciding to spare his young wife the burden of looking after him; Monsieur Potter hangs himself in the woods.
Madame Verona is so sure about their love, that she deflects the interest of a whole bevvy of young suitors to replace him. Even though he’s no longer alive, his presence is palpable and we experience him through her, his moods, sounds and presence in the wooden cabin. She waits around for 20 years to finally pay him a proper tribute before saying ‘Au Revoir’ herself.
Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill is full of mellifluous and energetic prose. Quirky sideline stories illuminate village life. The village vet is also a makeshift doctor to the locals. She is harsh and damning and puts human patients into a headlock, in case she gets fleas. A local eccentric rations cigars by writing an exact time for smoking, on each of the bands. In the canteen of an old cinema, villagers play enthusiastic winner-takes-all games of table football.
There are no normal plot devices here of failures or regrets. Instead there’s only a patient longing for reunion. Verhulst has succeeded in crafting a short and sweet novel that’s pure, romantic and genuinely uplifting.
This is a love story for romantics who haven’t been jaded or embittered by memories. Otherwise, it’s equally appealing to people who, despite their sad experiences, still have reason to be hopeful. In this sense, it’s completely different in a charming way, to a lot of fiction. Read it and pull your lover (or your pet) closer!