Boundless curious about almost everything, Jeroen Theunissen walks through Europe ★★★★ ☆

Picture Leonie Bos

Men who no longer draw their lives, which are curtailed by work, home and the second half, is a type of character that often appears in the work of the Flemish author Jeroen Theunissen, who was nominated for the Libris Literature Prize in 2017 with The detours. In his debut novel The invisible (2003) he has bank clerk Herbert Danigs, the bourgeois incarnate, derailing and murdering his wife. It will not be so dramatic in the case of Horacio Gnade, the Spanish-language literature teacher from A kind of fatigue (2008) who leave the fireplace and home from one moment to the next and travel to distant places. IN your skin (2018), Theunissen’s latest novel, Griff leaves his wife who is pregnant with him and moves from Wales to Brussels, the international city where he seems to be delighted with his new life with successful lobbying and non-committal one night stands. Until a young immigrant from Ghana catches his eye on a neighborhood cafe.

IN I = cartographer it is Theunissen himself who struggles with his sedentary civilian life (although at the very end of the book he throws some sand into the reader’s eyes with a rather dull disclaimer that he and his character only partially overlap). It is 2017 and the author is plagued by crippling anxiety attacks. His marriage is on the verge of death, he has a job he does not like, the care of his two sons is too much for him, and he has never felt any love for the part of the earth that should be his home ( …). ‘

He decides to take a long hike through Europe on his own. A journey that starts in the south-west of Ireland and which will take him via England, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria to Turkey. When he sees Asia on the other bank of the Bosphorus region of Istanbul, more than six months after his departure, his journey is complete.

Existential crisis or not, in the voluminous, multicolored I = cartographer (not a nice title by the way) Theunissen does not do navel-gazing, although of course he had plenty of time for it along the way. However, he haunts the story of his hike with passages about the period after returning home, where he remarkably focuses almost all attention on his sons and hardly mentions his (now former) wife. Theunissen questions his paternity and concludes that he is a father ‘who does not really know how to live this life’. One hardly hears of his ‘partnership’. What kind of marriage did he have? Why did it go wrong?

It is only a detail, but the lack of these questions is noticeable in a story that in many places is driven by questions and by attempts to come up with answers. I = cartographer is largely a questionnaire, and that is because Theunissen wants to understand not only himself but almost everything. Who am I? But also for example: what is Liverpool? What makes a German a German? What is Europe? What is Europe’s history? What is history at all? What is our modern reality? And what does the term ‘reality’ really mean?

It all sounds pretty theoretical, but it’s about the latter I = cartographer is. Theunissen asks big questions, yes, but his answers do not get lost in abstractions, they excel in concreteness. His book is a magnificent collection of stories, dissertations, anecdotes and points of interest that the author has drawn with a homo universalis boundless curiosity from a variety of disciplines and arts (history, philosophy, literature, film, biology, geology, architecture, archeology and still such something). With exact intuition, he has forged all this into a whimsical, compelling whole.

    Jeroen Theunissen statue Stephan Vanfleteren

Jeroen TheunissenStatue of Stephan Vanfleteren

Theunissen hardly follows beaten paths. When he talks about Liverpool, it is not about the Beatles, but about the great role this port city played in the slave trade and about Billy Fury, a long-forgotten pop star from the 1960s. When the author is in Poland, he does not go to the big cities, but to a remote corner of the southeastern part of the country, where he philosophizes in the small town of Dukla after a novel by Andrzej Stasiuk of the same name. In Austria, Hitler is an almost inevitable subject, but here too Theunissen focuses on the small and the obvious: The young Hitler’s unique uniqueness’ with his mother, who died in 1907 in front of his son. Then Theunissen writes: ‘I realize that this image of the gentle, sweet mother and the slightly worldly, but well-meaning son, makes me soften up a bit.’

‘Hundreds of thousands of stories contain the darkness’, writes Theunissen somewhere. It seems like he wants to tell as many people as possible. Meanwhile, he also looks around well, resulting in penetrating pages, especially in the chapters on the countries of Eastern Europe. About the traces of countless invasions, conquests, occupations, genocides and deportations: constantly changing borders, ruins of towns and villages that have fled or been evacuated. Isolated language communities of laggards or of non-integrated newcomers.

Theunissen is in his forties, but now and then reveals himself as one sour old man: he complains on social media, thinks we work too much, dislikes the massive use of GPS and rejects translation apps like depleting our communication. But he can also have fun. Unforgettable is the passage in which he describes how he and a young woman at a cafe on the border between Ukraine and Romania just giggle together: ‘We giggled and knocked on each other and finally we fell on the table of laughter, we kept on guard , when one of the guests came from outside to see what the hell was going on (…). ‘

It is impossible to do justice to all the topics that Theunissen addresses and to all the stories he tells in this short report. well you would I = cartographer can briefly summarize in the beautiful words with which Jorge Luis Borges his collection The Creator (1960) concludes: ‘It is a man’s goal to map the world. (…) Shortly before he dies, he discovers that in the patient labyrinth of lines the image of his own face is visible. ‘ Perhaps thanks to Borges, the title of Theunissen’s book is not so bad after all.

Jeroen Theunissen: I = cartographer† The busy bee; 428 pages; € 24.99.

In Cartographer - Jeroen Theunissen Sculpture rv

Me Cartographer – Jeroen Theunissenpicture rv

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