Translated by Edward Gauvin
from The World of Paul Willems
I was in what they call the 18 Days’ Campaign. Eighteen days of war is, of course, not a lot at all, but for me it was a very intense time, of which I retain a very vivid memory. I was called to active duty in September 1939. Near the Albert Canal at first, not far from Herentals, and then to Liège, where I found myself on May 9, 1940. I was in the mounted artillery. During my days of compulsory military service, I had a horse, but upon being called to active duty, this horse metamorphosed into a bicycle. As I was on leave that night, I’d gone into town with a few fellow soldiers and dragged my heels about going back, lingering a bit in the cafés and streets. It was nice out. At dawn, I returned to the heights of St. Nicolas, where the army had requisitioned me a room. It wasn’t very far from my company’s command post. On my way back, I saw a light on there and went to investigate. They told me a very serious alert had been sounded, that something significant was underway, and I should go put on my combat uniform. So I went and got ready and packed my bags, thinking that this alert was probably no different from the others. Fifteen minutes later, I stepped outside and saw in the clear blue sky—it was a splendid morning in May—hundreds of planes flying high above, seeming to shimmer with light. In the distance, detonations could already be heard, and I realized that we were at war.
Very soon, within half an hour, everything had come to life, soldiers were arriving from all over. Instead of dispatching us to our post, which was toward Seraing—we’d have had to cross the Meuse—we were told to beat a retreat because the Germans’ first thrust had broken through our frontlines and the army had to regroup farther back. An hour later, as we were readying to leave Liège, the German planes appeared, much lower than those we’d seen at first, but they didn’t drop any bombs. When the infantry saw the planes, they fired at them with their rifles.
Just then, I felt—I think many people had the same feeling—a kind of wild joy, as if at that very moment I found myself freed from the weight of all my life had been up till then, as if an absolute freedom had suddenly risen up before me. Perhaps the world was about to explode, perhaps everything would be destroyed, but at that moment everything was still intact, and the only unmistakable thing was the total availability of the present moment and our total ignorance of what would happen an hour later. And all those soldiers firing on those planes seemed overjoyed: naturally they knew it would do no good but they were in an incredible state of exaltation, one that however had nothing to do with courage or fighting spirit. And I said to myself: this is it—finally, everything’s going to blow! I didn’t know what was going to blow, but still, the feeling of exaltation was there.
And the retreat began. I’d been given a priest’s old bicycle; it still had wooden rims, and on the rack I carried the manuscript for my first novel, Everything Here Is Real. The novel wasn’t entirely finished yet, and at the time, it was the most important thing to me, much more so than being mobilized, or the war.
That first day of the retreat was still fairly dangerous, because the Germans had started bombarding the roads. But I was not—at least not that day—directly threatened. I beheld from a distance those infamous Stukas diving down at forts, and the detonations were very violent, but it all seemed unreal. And so we fell back all that day, and through the night, too, until one in the morning, on foot, on wheels; we weren’t going very fast, of course, since the roads were mobbed with refugees and the whole army pulling back. At around one, we came to a halt in a small garden, I can’t remember where anymore. It was spring, there was a wonderful smell of flowers—wisteria, it was. We could hear the endless rumble of carts going by, but inside that garden, where we were to await our platoon, I was very happy. I felt simply wonderful. And since I had a little flashlight, I dove into Everything Here Is Real and revised certain passages. I hadn’t a thought for sleep. The curious thing is that I could’ve worked on the book the night before, the ninth, but since we weren’t at war yet, I’d gone out drinking with friends instead, and it wasn’t until the night after that I felt the urge to work, amidst that tremendous tumult, just as one world was sliding by, when we felt ourselves invaded.
We left again at dawn, and things grew harder and harder. The second night, we reached a village near Brussels known as Grand-Rosière, Great Virtue—I used the name later in a play, It’s Raining in my House. We spent the night on the grounds of a château, where we heard dozens of nightingales singing. Once again, we found ourselves in splendid surroundings, as if at the heart of a hidden paradise, encircled by hedges and behind a locked gate. And I kept working on my novel. The next morning, the retreat resumed, and finally, we stopped and put up a fight for two days along the infamous K-W Line. I think that’s what it was called. But whenever I had a moment, I would dive back into my book, as if it were reality and the war but a dream. Later, the feeling of unreality that war procured was to grow even stronger still. This happened when I saw the dead bodies of soldiers for the first time. They were just like Rimbaud’s “Sleeper in the Valley,” dressed in their greatcoats, stretched out on the fields—you would’ve said they were sleeping, just like in the poem.
In the next few days, I saw cows that had been killed, and then I felt much more strongly the reality of death’s presence, because their bodies had swollen. But the bodies of soldiers that shelling or machine guns had slain still seemed just as unreal. As if, amidst this war, death did not truly declare itself to me. The weather was splendid and so we went from place to place, château to château, farm to farm. Since many of the inhabitants had fled, or been forced to leave, you could walk into a bakery and take all the bread you wanted. It was like in a tale from the Thousand and One Nights. I was assigned to observe, on the frontline apparently, from an abandoned villa. There were huge baskets filled with eggs there, big sacks full of sugar, and a great many bottles of cherry wine. I stayed for three days and fed on almost nothing but eggs and cherry wine, to which I added a little sugar. I’d been left all alone because I was an observer. I found myself just under a mile from a gun battery; linked to it by an old-fashioned apparatus, a field phone, I was to observe its firing. But I had nothing to observe because during that entire time the enemy failed to show, and so no firing took place. I was able to work on my novel all the while. In the end, I was ordered by phone to fall back.
Later, we passed a canal on the outskirts of Boom or Dendemonde, I’ve never been able to remember exactly where. Near the canal was a convent. The nuns had made heaps of toast spread with butter and jam, and handed them out to soldiers as they passed. We retreated in an orderly fashion, and the engineering corps prepared to destroy the bridge. But the nuns were not at all aware the bridge was about to blow, and no one had thought to tell them to take cover. I suddenly felt a great exhaustion and, without even taking a piece of toast, sat down on the spot. I must have fallen asleep. At one point I felt a tapping on my shoulder: it was a tiny little nun—I can still see her clearly—and without saying a word, she beckoned me into the convent. I followed. We passed through hallways of extraordinary coolness and cleanliness, the floors were of black and white marble, and just behind was a small garden full of flowers. All was calm, quiet. The little nun ushered me into a kind of parlor where there was a table and a chair. On the table was a bottle of wine, a plate, utensils, and very beautiful crystalline glasses. She told me to sit down, and she served me soup, chops, and dessert; then she laid a small cigar down beside my plate. I ate, drank the bottle of wine, and thanked her warmly. Then she said to me: “You looked so tired I gave you the general’s lunch.” When I bid her farewell, I forget to ask her the name of the convent. I would’ve liked to thank her after the war, but I have never been able to find that place again. I don’t know if that convent still exists.
Farther still, I took up an observation post inside a church. I could see the German soldiers on the far side of a canal readying a small-caliber gun battery. They bustled about the guns, no more than twenty feet away. I realized I could rest my rifle on the windowsill and kill them. It would’ve been very easy, but I couldn’t bring myself to. I couldn’t have killed a man, or several, in that fashion, though we were at war. I don’t think I could have done it unless I’d been attacked, and had to defend myself.
I’ve never really tried to retrace the route of the retreat, because the route in my memory, much less precise, was far more beautiful than if I’d put names to the all the towns. The only place I regret not being able to find again is that convent.
At one point, I was in an orchard defended by infantrymen from the Chasseurs Ardennais. There were little trenches, holes large enough for only one man, and since we were expecting an attack, I was told to get inside one of these holes. The attack never happened, but the orchard was bombarded by artillery. I wasn’t afraid, because all this seemed completely unreal to me. A mortar shell hit the flowering apple tree near my hole, which suddenly found itself showered with petals and branches. Once the shelling was over, the devastated orchard—all those blossom-laden branches littering the ground—was a splendid sight to see. I still recall that during the shelling I was very happy not to be afraid, and I even lit a cigarette simply because it amused me.
And as always, throughout that eighteen-day retreat, I dove back into my novel whenever I had the chance.
On the penultimate morning, I was dispatched to an observation post on the Leie. It was just under a mile away, and I had to bike down a very narrow road across a broad meadow. It was one of those little Flanders roads with uneven cobblestones. All of a sudden, I heard the sound of a truck coming from behind me. I was frightened, because the road was so narrow I had no room to make way. So I leapt from my bike and looked behind. There was no truck—there was nothing on the road. I was very surprised, and very worried. I got back on the road and after a few hundred yards, I heard the truck following me again. So I stopped again, thinking perhaps it was farther away, that I hadn’t gotten a good look the first time around, but when I turned there was still nothing. Then I pedaled like a madman all the way to the small stand of trees where I was headed, for no sooner did I get back on my bike than the sound returned, and I truly believed I was being chased by a truck. And only after reaching the woods did I realize all this was the result of my tremendous fatigue, and I was victim to some kind of auditory hallucination due to the fact that all night long, I’d listened to trucks passing by. I believe that was the only time I was truly afraid.
The next day, I saw a hanged man in a church. As in many small churches in Flanders back then, the bell ropes could be found hanging in the entryway, and a soldier had hung himself from one of these. That was the first time I became aware of death and the full violence tied to it. An officer arrived and took the man down. At the time, I didn’t recognize him, but a friend of mine told me that he was a boy who’d gone to the same elementary school as I had, in Antwerp. I never found out if this was true. I don’t know why he killed himself—from fright, perhaps, or exhaustion, or despair. I’ve often wondered. Perhaps he’d killed himself for a reason that had nothing to do with the war. Perhaps heartbreak, or a fear going all the way back to childhood, or great shame. I don’t know.
Twenty-four hours later, the Belgian Army surrendered. There we were. A massive crowd. Soldiers, refugees, cars broken down on the road, wagons, horses. The villagers were at their windows. Disoriented, we were milling randomly this way and that, like ants. Suddenly a hand fell on my shoulder: “Say, you haven’t seen Corporal Paul Willems, have you?” I turned around. It was my friend A.B., who used to come with me when I sailed or canoed down the Scheldt. He’d spotted my regiment number on my epaulettes; he belonged to another unit and was coming from another corner of the front. He hadn’t recognized me from behind. We were about to drop dead from exhaustion, not even surprised that such a miraculous coincidence had reunited us. A.B. had found a small shed of sorts where there was some straw. We let ourselves fall to the ground and slept like stones. Two days later, we woke to a terrible stench. Looking at the straw where we’d lain down, we saw the corpse of a billy goat.
Paul Willems (1912-1997) belongs to the final generation of great Francophone Belgian fantasists of Flemish descent. He published his first novel, Everything Here is Real, in 1941. Three more novels and, toward the end of his life, two collections of short stories, bracket his career as a playwright, for which he was best known in his lifetime. Donald Friedman’s translation of his late novella The Drowned Land was nominated for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award and published with Suzanne Burgoyne’s translation of his play La Vita Brève in an edition from Peter Lang in 1994. In Wakefield Press published Edward Gauvin’s translation of his collection The Cathedral of Mist in 2016. His work has also appeared in Tin House, Subtropics, Podcastle, and Scheherezade’s Bequest.
Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from PEN America, the NEA, the Lannan Foundation, the British Comparative Literature Association, and the French Embassy. Other publications have appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, and Conjunctions. A prolific comics translator, he is a contributing editor at Words Without Borders.