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A sprawling self-portrait

The Charred Alphabet

Paul de Wispelaere

‘The Charred Alphabet’ follows the life of the author from October 1990 to September 1991 and draws associative connections between current affairs and events from the past. This literary diary is a colourful mixture of stories, impressions of and reflections on literature, art, love, nature, politics and growing old. A thread runs through it all, one of sensitive memories of lost loves interwoven with the experience of new love, marked inevitably by the process of ageing.

A masterpiece
Het Nieuwsblad

According to the author, ‘The Charred Alphabet’ – the title is taken from a verse by Octavio Paz – is a perfect articulation of De Wispelaere’s ‘middle position’ in life. Born too late to experience his parents’ still mythical world of craftsmanship, and born too early to fully embrace modernity and technological progress. The title also alludes to a language and a world shot to pieces by two world wars. At the same time, it contains an image of new life: the silence that follows the burning of that old, dilapidated alphabet sounds like the opening chord of a new language.

The most beautiful love-hymn in our literature
Het Laatste Nieuws
‘This book encompasses an entire life’
Francis Dannemark, writer and publisher of Escales du Nord (Le Castor Astral)

'I don’t read Dutch like a native, but I’ve often been aware that you can grasp the magic of a book without a perfect knowledge of the language in which it was written. The pages I read from Paul de Wispelaere touched me deeply and I wanted to know more about the story. So I had it translated! And I discovered a book that differed from every other, and in every respect, a book that encompassed an entire life. The writing was atypically precise and honest.

Why choose this book? A fragment from the opening pages should suffice to answer such a question: “It’s night-time. We’re sitting under the lamp that illuminates our shapes and movements. Only our faces and hands are exposed, and that’s what we’re looking at. […] You have strong, soft, sweet hands, she says. Not at all, I say, yet I’m happy she speaks her own truth. It’s the truth of love, of course, but any other truth would be unbearable.’’