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Haunting observations through the eyes of an internee

Crackling Skulls

Roger Van de Velde

A maverick of Flemish literature, Roger Van de Velde has had a lasting impact on the current generation of Flemish authors. His life story could at the very least be called extraordinary. He was addicted to the painkiller Palfium, and after forging prescriptions he repeatedly found himself in prisons and psychiatric institutions.

In the twenty powerful short stories in ‘Crackling Skulls’, he portrays his ‘companions in misery’ in those institutions, people living on the fringes of society. He combines his own intense compassion for his fellow internees with detached and razor-sharp observations. Through his haunting descriptions, we get to know Daniël, who smokes one cigarette after another for three days because Prometheus has instructed him to do so, Jules Leroy, who kills his beloved cat after it eats his roast beef, and Marquis de la Motte, who writes out IOUs for billions of francs. He describes their madness with respect and love, and persistently goes in search of the final remnants of humanity within them.

Penetrating and splendid, full of brilliant, somewhat harrowing images
NRC Handelsblad

Empathy, combined with a powerful talent for observation, an eye for detail and literary flair, produces compelling portraits of lost souls. With an undertone of sometimes wry humour, Van de Velde incisively describes the dramas great and small that he witnesses. At the same time he touches upon the abuses perpetrated in the institutions, where the doctors do not actually treat anyone. His humanity, his command of style, his clarity of mind and his ability to resist sentimentality still effortlessly hold readers in their grip more than fifty years after his stories were first published.

Top-flight prose written in a smooth, sober style
Cutting Edge
The king of the short story
Dimitri Verhulst
'A high point of my years as a literary translator'
Jonathan Reeder, translator from Dutch to English

Translators always hope that a project will either engage us and our readers, contribute something meaningful to literature, or shed light on a neglected author or bygone situation. Rarely does a book do all of these. But 'Crackling Skulls' was all this, and more. It is not just engaging, it is riveting; not just meaningful, but monumental; more than revealing, it is jaw-dropping. For me, translating these 'frescos from an asylum' - tragicomic portraits of inmates in a psychiatric prison - was a truly emotional experience. I was by turns appalled by the callousness of the Belgian correctional system of the 1960s, fascinated by the workings of a short-circuited mind, and more than once moved to tears by the simple helplessness of men on the fringes of sanity.

My heart went out to the deaf-mute Séraphin, who pined for a faded magazine pin-up girl; Livinus, whose only wish was to have one last schnapps on his deathbed; and most of all Honoré, who tried his best to please the doctor by playing the trumpet. Tackling these twenty stories, told in a wry, insightful, at times baroque, and always compassionate narrative, was a high point of my years as a literary translator.