Home » Walter van den Broeck (1941-2024), the writer who always remained a working-class son

Walter van den Broeck (1941-2024), the writer who always remained a working-class son

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READ ALSO. Kempen author Walter van den Broeck (Vegetables from Balen) passed away

Very early on, Walter van den Broeck began to explore the story of his family tree as an answer to the question of why he writes, why he feels at home somewhere and nowhere at the same time, why he lives at all. In his genealogically conceived Notes of a Tribal Keeper (1977), these questions form the start of a journey through many ancestors: “Why the need to write all this down? Is it because I want to formulate a valid answer once and for all to the feeling of displacement, which manifests itself as an oppressive question, and which has accompanied me since the earliest awakening of my consciousness?” From the very beginning to the end of his writing career, this theme characterizes his oeuvre: fascination with the family, the environment, the region, and for writing itself.

Van den Broeck is the author of a large and coherent oeuvre. His own social and family reality seeps through in his many novels, stories, plays, television and radio plays, although never unambiguously or navel-gazing. The folk narrators of his novels fit into a Flemish storytelling tradition à la Gerard Walschap and they appear in cleverly constructed, polyphonic stories.

In highlights such as Letter to Baudouin (1980) and the novel cycle The Siege of Laeken (1985-1992), he combines the ingenious composition with humor, nods to other texts and autobiographical material. He writes with speed and a cool language. The letter to Baudouin is a milestone in Dutch literature, with which Van den Broeck links up with the social criticism of authors such as Louis Paul Boon.


The fact that Van den Broeck himself grew up in an environment of workers provided the basis for his writing. After studying at the National Normal School, which was supposed to lead to a career in education, he managed to escape his environment. He worked in education for a while and would subsequently be editor-in-chief of the advertising magazine Turnhout-Ekspres for many years. In the 1960s he was the co-founder of the idiosyncratic literary magazine Heibel.

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Van den Broeck in 1970. — © Gie Knaeps

However, in his writing, he continued to embrace his background. As he says in a 1979 interview: “I am very aware that I will never be anything other than the son of a worker. All my thinking, all my feelings are colored by it.” He therefore chose the perspective of the worker and socially suppressed individuals.

His classic and filmed play Vegetables from Balen (1972) focuses on a working-class family during a strike that actually took place in 1971 in the Balen zinc factory of Vieille-Montagne. The mentality of resistance is also present in his other socially realistic plays. In The Account of the Child (1973), for example, a Dutch teacher denounces the suffocating pressure of the school system. Van den Broeck addresses child abuse in the Church in The Alphabet of Silence (2013) and the banking crisis finds its way into the profound novel Back to Walden (2009). Social concerns would continue to fuel his theater work and novels. Because of their sharp criticism, they require a reader who does not simply consume passively, while the texts never become intellectualistic or inaccessible.

Kempen birthplace

In Back to Walden, the richest man in the world returns to the Kempen birthplace of his ancestors. The title recalls the utopian commune of writer Frederik van Eeden. With a sharp look at the economic systems that determine the individual, the novel bridges the gap between its own region and global developments. In Van den Broeck’s oeuvre, that connection is a constant and evident. His statement that the sun never sets on his family is well known, a nod to the statement about the empire of Charles V. However much the author is bound to the Kempen context, his vision of life and family history also mean that he is in touch with the rest of the world. is connected.

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This family history takes shape in numerous works. It is fitting that the novel published last year, The Difficult Love, completes the family portrait with a story about his older brother Jules, who settled in Mexico. The family dynamic was already a theme in his novel debut, The Heir to the Throne (1967), in which the main character rebels against his father’s authority.

Difficult father-son relationships would often return in Van den Broeck’s works. They are usually undisguisedly autobiographical in nature without ever becoming a form of confessional literature. What Van den Broeck does with that material is more important than the material itself. He injects them with humor and fiction. In this way, his written life becomes dominated by his great literary plan to reconcile appearance and reality in writing.

The novel that the author himself called the end of his oeuvre was published in 2015, even though more were published afterwards. The stranger introduces a bookseller who is experiencing his old age bleakly. He still hopes for a female grandchild, but the new girlfriend of his grandson Dries does not understand reproduction: ‘The treacherous thing is that we become attached to that meaningless life,’ she writes, ‘and want to keep it as long as possible, even until long after we have copied ourselves and thus become biologically redundant’.

Van den Broeck allows these biological, genealogical lines to constantly flirt with the meaning provided by writing. He does this in a way that resolutely transcends all superfluity and the temporary nature of life. This oeuvre retains its relevance due to the social criticism, the witty and cool style, the narrative flow and the metafictional play. The sun never sets on this work.

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Lars Bernaerts teaches Dutch literature at Ghent University.

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