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Une paix royale.

An enticing novel: difficult for the foreign reader, excessively long, sometimes confusing, often depressing, but filled with clever, cynical commentary which may provoke a smile. Une paix royale is indeed "fiction," as the author insists on the back cover - i.e., all but one incident in which the narrator (or the author), when a child growing up in Belgium, was thrown from his bicycle by a car driven by the king of his country.

The reader becomes acquainted with Pierre (the narrator), a young adult employed by a Belgian tourist agency as a guide in Egypt. Tourists and their comments create a field day for Pierre's sarcastic frame of mind. Apparently, he is obsessed with human failure. His thoughts turn to his unhappy childhood during World War II, when Belgium was overcome by the Nazis and King Leopold III went into self-imposed exile. As Pierre matured and the war ended, he became fascinated by Leopold's so-called failure: a king who eventually abdicated his throne in favor of his young nephew, Baudouin. Was this a "failure" in reality, or was the king instead liberated from his burdens, free to lead a happy life?

Pierre is now on the staff of a Belgian weekly journal for which he writes articles of his own choosing on a wide range of subjects. He delves into research on the life of the now-deceased King Leopold III, in the course of which he interviews the princess, Leopold's second wife, forming a friendship with her which reveals to him much about the former king's life. Since Pierre is an avid devotee of European bicycle racing, he interrupts his research on the former king to interview two retired champions of recent races. Are they too "failures" when finally beaten by a younger contestant?

All this leads Pierre to reappraise his own life: his wretched childhood, his inability to qualify for the important bicycle races, his failed marriage, the absence of children, his cohabitation with a new fiancee to whom he relates his problems. His gloomy outlook is worsened when he accepts the rare privilege of interviewing the present king, Baudouin, who dies of a painful illness only a few months later. Doom is apparently inevitable!

The last fifty pages are filled with Pierre's listing of the major catastrophes that have occurred throughout the world in modern times, causing him to sneer at the indifference of human beings to this devastation. Floods suddenly strike Brussels. As the waters rise, Pierre is left stranded, alone, on the top of a building, regretting the fact that he cannot complete his story. At last he has found peace! Again the reader is reminded that the key to Pierre's historical research and to his depression was his accidental encounter with royalty when he was a child. His cynicism extends even to historical writing: "Je me dis: a peu pres personne ne lit personne. C'est la que le malentendu commence, et c'est aussi la qu'il finit. Dans l'interstice de ces mauvaises lectures, ce que nous appelons 'l'Histoire' vient s'engouffrer, se dechirer, tomber en lambeaux."

Nevertheless, the reader understands as he finishes Une paix royale that all is not futility. He has been presented with a fascinating analysis of the political turmoil of the small Belgian nation during World War II and its aftermath.

Alan Roberts Union College (N.Y.)
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Roberts, Alan
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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Next Article:L'enigme.

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