Other People's Countries by Patrick McGuiness is a virtually unclassifiable book. I suppose you could say it is all about Belgium - if you wanted to totally discourage potential readers. Or, even more efficiently off-putting, you could say that it is all about one rather unprepossessing town in Belgium - Bouillon, on the Belgian side of the France-Belgium border.
You could say, possibly with even less hope of drumming up a large crowd of enthusiastic takers, that it is a WG Sebald inspired journey into the author's memory. The text is certainly larded with rather unexciting black and white photographs, in the manner pioneered by Sebald.
Whatever it is though, the book possesses one marvellous attribute - it is terribly funny. While the author does occasionally make gnomic, (by which I think I probably mean pretentious and meaningless), remarks, such as "Trains tell you about time, though what they say is never conclusive", and has a slight tendency to slip bits of so-called poetry into the text - in fact the book, unpromisingly, opens with one of these - lapses of this sort are greatly outnumbered by pages and pages where McGuiness's sense of the absurd is allowed free rein..
Were one being a bigoted foreigner, one might argue that Belgium offers a lot of scope for a sense of the absurd - and Bouillon, as a kind of concentrated microcosm of Belgium, offers the absurd in a particularly concentrated form. I couldn't possibly comment. All I can say is that McGuiness conjures up various local characters - Philippe Albert, aka the Golden Boot; uncle Jean-Pol, who 'was, to all intents and purposes, the sixties in Bouillon'; Robert Hainaux, who 'looked like a successful highwayman pretending to be an unsuccessful one' and, above all, Lucie, his dressmaker grandmother who was 'fond of linings' - and supplies a stream of anecdotes - about the cafe run by a Mr Hanus, ('you don't pronounce the h'); about giving his grandmother a frame for Christmas; about going to Mini-Europe - all of which combine insight, poignance and amusement. For me at least, that combination is the reading equivalent of a really good pop song - addictive, compulsive, pleasurable, moreish.
Clearly McGuiness, who is half-English, half-Belgian, has thought a great deal about Belgium, which he describes as a place whose inhabitants practice 'nationalism by indifference.' He has thought even more about memory, (the clue is in the sub-title to the book, which I've only just noticed - A Journey into Memory), whose reliability he doubts. For all I know, he may in the main be right on this score, but I'd have to say his memory of the driving habits of the adult world during his childhood replicates pretty accurately those I remember from my own:
"When I was a child ... everyone drove drunk ... it seemed there was a minimum required limit of drink before you were even allowed to climb into a car, (more if you were carrying passengers: it was a matter of conviviality)"
Of course many people will be horrified by such a relaxed recollection of collective irresponsibility. They will probably also object to McGuiness's observations on old people staying in their own homes:
"There's something about old people in their own homes: they can live in them for years without quite managing: managing the cooking, the stairs, the washing, the laundry, the bills, the heating, the water, the personal hygiene and the TV remote control. When I say 'not quite managing' I mean, basically: managing. In a similar way, when I said 'managing' I'd in fact mean 'not quite managing'. My point is that the definition of 'managing' needs to be as flexible and blurred as possible, to allow the old person who is managing/not quite managing maximum leeway to stay in their own home. Why?
Because suddenly, when their children or grandchildren decide it's time to move them to an old people's home where these things will all be managed for them, they decline fast or die, or decline fast and die - either just before going into the home (as my grandmother did: heart attack on the stairs on the way to the bathroom the day before they were due to take her to see the home) or just after reaching the home, as Mme J- did. These places used to be called 'Maisons de retraite'. now they're just called 'Un Home', as in : 'il est temps qu'elle aille dans un home': it's time for her to go to a home. 'Le Parking', 'Le traffic', now 'Le Home'. My consolation is that my grandmother never knew enough English to feel the painful irony of that foreign word 'home' being used to designate the place that would have dislodged her from hers'.
To my mind there's a gentle wisdom to these and many other of McGuiness's musings.
I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Other People's Countries, (even if you've never set foot in Belgium - and/or don't ever plan to). It is charming, it is intelligent, it is highly original. McGuiness is very good at articulating things you are half aware of - for instance, he says of train travel that he enjoys ' the species of sub-attentive attentiveness it brings out', which brought a squawk of recognition to my lips, (and there were plenty of other such squawks dotted through the book). He makes you laugh and in some strange way he is also curiously soothing. The book is one of my favourites in a while. I hope he might one day turn attention to his other nationality and produce a book reflecting on that.