Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory by Patrick McGuinness

By Patrick McGuinness

Enable me take you down the skinny cobblestoned streets of the Belgian border city of Bouillon. enable me take you down the alleys that lead into its prior. To a city peopled with eccentrics, filled with attraction, risk and sweetness. To the times ahead of tv, to Marie Bodard’s sweetshop, to the Nazi profession and unforeseen collaborators. To a spot the place one neighbour murders one other over the misfortune of pigs and potatoes. To the inn the place the French poet Verlaine his lover Rimbaud, holed up when at the run from kinfolk, collectors and the legislations. This beautiful meditation on position, time and reminiscence is a bootleg peek into different people’s international locations, into the areas they've got populated with their thoughts, and can simply make you revisit your individual in a brand new and remarkable approach.

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And that smell, incidentally – it was always the product of what made it: the life, fast or slow, that animated it; the food they cooked, the things they brought in, the clothes they wore, the bodies washed and unwashed, old age, and that tamped-down off-sweet hesitant odour of someone you’ve never thought of as old but who now, suddenly, seems to have caught age itself on their skin. I remember that moment with each of them: Eugène already smelled old despite being only in his fifties, Julia was far into it; as for Lucie, I remember first smelling old age on her, and being made unsteady by it and perturbed, in about 1987, after Collette’s death.

Well, still’, repeated my father, before adding a flourish of non sequitur: ‘fair’s fair’. ‘Il faut trier’, my mother used to say, ‘toujours trier’. My parents had specific criteria when deciding whether to keep or throw out an object. If it could be drunk, eaten or smoked, it would be consumed or consume itself, and was out of the equation. Other objects needed to be affirmed on an almost daily basis or else they’d be under threat from the black bin bags: they had to be touched or applied or used.

That’s how the plaques begin: ‘Here’. But after that they fall away into the amnesia and deliquescence they’re designed to guard against. They are always made of something hard and durable too: iron, stone, slate. But it’s the words on them, etched or in relief, chiselled or enamelled, that lets them down. They look solid, but really they’re melting as you read. Belgium is a country of plaques. Everyone passed through, not many stayed. It’s even truer here in Wallonia, the Belgium of Belgiums.

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