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Peter Verhelst

Poet, novelist and playwright Peter Verhelst was born in Brugge in 1962. He was drawn to books at an early age – even pouring through atlases and encyclopaedias. This might account for the classical references he often employs in his work.

Verhelst made his literary debut in 1987 with ‘Obsidiaan,’ a collection of poetry centred around four paintings by Irish artist Francis Bacon. He continued writing poetry until 1997 when, after a series of poems based on the myth of Icarus, he published his own obituary as a poet in a literary journal.

Stolen fire
He wrote three novels between 1993 and 1996 including ‘Het spierenalfabet’ (The Muscle Alphabet) about a young man given the task of cataloguing an ancient library’s collection of precious manuscripts. But his “breakthrough” book ‘Tongkat’ (Tongue Cat) was published in 1999. It won major awards including two Golden Owls and the Flemish Culture Prize for Literature, elevated his status from cult author to a wide readership and has been translated into English.

Chaos and violence reign is this novel inspired by the story of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. He finds himself in the slums of a city surrounded by an underground counterculture of squatters, junkies and whores - called tongue cats.

“No efforts were spared to defy the cold. A state of emergency was declared. The king ordered the word winter banned from all books. But the decrees whirled through the air like snowflakes. The he outlawed the words cold and warmth. His subjects nodded, beating their arms rhythmically against their sides. We banned the words cold and warmth from our thoughts in hope that our bodies too would forget them.”

Not post-modern
Some critics have referred to Verhelst’s work as post-modernist, a label which the author himself rejects. However, his fragmentary 2005 novel ‘Zwarm’ (Swarm) certainly has an unusual structure beginning as it does at page 666 and ending with zero – the ‘black hole’ into which everything disappears.

In 2008 Verhelst published his most recent ‘final’ collection of poetry: ‘Nieuwe sterrenbeelden’ (New Constellations). It examines romantic love, including sonnets, and has once again earned the author numerous major awards. He also published his first children’s book: ‘Het geheim van de keel van de nachtegaal’ (The Secret of the Throat of the Nightingale).




Vlaams Nederlands Huis de Buren Radio Netherlands The Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature

This author's Radio Book:

Peter Verhelst
Legion

Verhelst’s language and imagery has been described as poetic, cryptic, sensual and bizarre. All these adjectives apply to his Radiobooks story. A group of archaeologists race against time to recover treasures from an ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates.

“We’re following in the footsteps of the occupier, who surrounded himself with his own stories, told in brightly coloured tiles. With every new village we expose, we can hear the music better, the laughter, the sweet nothings the Romans whispered to each other in the shadowy recesses of the atrium. We dream their dreams…”

Legion by Peter Verhelst was translated by Sherry Marx (also translator of Verhelst’s novel Tongue Cat published in English by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) The story is read by Jacky Spears.

Produced by Radio Netherlands Worldwide

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