GlobalThe novel that teleports us into the madness of Bruegel's time

The novel that teleports us into the madness of Bruegel’s time

Since then, his novel has been adapted for the screen under the title of Will, the name of its very dark hero who challenges the reader by asking: “What would you have done in my place, immersed in the horror of the Second World War?

Jeroen Olyslaegers returns with a big and strong historical novel, abundant, fascinating, requiring you to be an attentive reader: The Wild Woman. He left the painting Mad Margot (Dulle Griet) by Bruegel, from the Mayer van den Bergh museum to tell a moment of our history, and first of all that of Antwerp, around the Iconoclastic fury of 1566 which saw Calvinist rioters break all the statues and paintings in the cathedral, opening a period of great unrest leading to the sack of the city by Spanish troops in 1576, the secession of the Netherlands and the massive exodus of Protestants from Antwerp to Amsterdam.

Jeroen Olyslaegers ©Photo: Nikki Van Lierop

The era recounted by Jeroen Olyslaegers brought together, a bit like today, all the dangers: we were experiencing a climate change, called the little ice age with freezing temperatures in which some saw divine punishment. At the time, Antwerp had 100,000 inhabitants and was full of foreigners from all over the world.

Papist Catholics, Calvinists, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Jews, free thinkers rubbed shoulders and sometimes opposed each other. We saw what we called flowering hedge preaching with a crowd of inspired speakers, often anonymous, as if springing spontaneously from the bowels of the people.

The wild woman is the story of Beer, an innkeeper in Antwerp during Bruegel’s time who in the novel painted a fresco in his café. The man is haunted by the successive deaths of his three wives and writes a long letter against God and his cruelty when he asked Abraham to kill his son.

Jeroen Olyslaegers does not recall the historical context, plunging us directly into it, into the head of a man who welcomed all these free-thinkers and Protestants, and sheltered a secret circle of notables, “The Family of Love” , but came to betray his own friends, like the Wil of his previous novel, Trouble.

With his friends Hugo the bookseller and Jeroom, a blind storyteller, he forms the “union of savages” who disguises himself as savages during the carnival.

Ten years later, settled in Amsterdam, Beer remembers these troubled times in Antwerp.

In this novel we come across a number of historical characters: Bruegel in the background with his Dulle Griet but also the Fall of the Rebel Angels (from the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels) with a Saint-Michel evoking the terrible Duke of Alba crushing the rebels. We meet the great cartographer Abraham Ortelius, the English humanist, mathematician and alchemist John Dee who wrote his books in the Beer Inn in which he advocated a direct dialogue with God, the painter Joris Hoefnagel, the printer Willem Silvius, the merchant Gillis Hooftman, etc. And of course, Marguerite de Parma the regent, the terrible Cardinal de Granvelle, or Henri de Brederode, called the Big Beggar, who led the revolt of 1566.

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We are living in the end times, Beer. The signs are only becoming more obvious.

Jeroen Olyslaegers adds characters from his imagination like the Wild woman which gives its title to the novel, an Inuit woman brought back from the far North with her daughter, dressed in seal skins, captured during an aborted expedition to find a route to China from the North. Beer agrees to house them but first sees them as wild beasts that the people of Antwerp can admire in exchange for payment.

Why did you choose such a troubled time?

I remembered this dream from my youth to write a novel set in Bruegel’s world. My father was already a great admirer of Bruegel and Bosch. He chose my first name Jeroen which was from Bosch. The first time I saw a reproduction of a Bruegel I was 8 years old and I felt immersed in a world strangely close to me, I was fascinated by these sometimes very cruel images but children have another approach to cruelty. I was also a big fan of the Bob and Bobette stories. There was one where they were teleported into a Bruegel painting. I dreamed of doing the same.

Jeroen Olyslaegers: “There are ghosts that still haunt Antwerp and its streets”

You immerse your readers in this era without “pedagogical” explanations, we enjoy multiple anecdotes from that time: the Spaniards are Espingouins, the Devil is the Horned One, public baths are for prostitution…

I hate teaching. I don’t want to hold my readers’ hands. But to achieve this, it takes extensive research over years to make everything accurate, to write as if I were a real witness to what I am saying. I think the magic of a book works if you are like a witness and show significant details.

Why Beer, a cafeteria? And a traitor?

The world of café owners in Antwerp was well documented. It was very useful and, what’s more, the inns were then the most public square in the City and therefore it was possible that one would meet everyone from 16th century Antwerp there. Beer is initially an idiot, a bit pathetic. He compares himself to Job, he does not understand the misfortune of his own life, but God with him is silent and sends him no sign. He becomes the victim of Jan Grouwels, a cruel opportunist such as we know in all troubled times. I am fascinated by these people who profit from these agitations.

What lessons do you want to give us about today’s world?

That’s the reader’s job. Me, I put on a big show, I’m like a painter who paints a society, a city, a mentality. There are of course multiple possible echoes with our contemporary world that I had in mind but I do not want to guide my readers, especially since several characters gradually took their freedom and escaped me. The paintings of Bruegel or Bosch are allegories. My novel too, is an allegory of Antwerp in the golden age, of Belgium, of Europe. But we also talk about seduction, about empathy to identify with Beer.

A character evokes the end of times. Is this a link with catastrophism today?

I learned by studying the 16th century that the apocalyptic atmosphere has always been there, throughout time, in all societies. Mercator thought that the Last Judgment would take place in 1588. Luther’s revolution seemed to announce to Catholics the end of the world. Nietzsche announced the death of God, but then what?

“Trouble” by Jeroen Olyslaegers: the great fresco on occupied Antwerp

Did the wild woman exist, and treated like a zoo animal?

I discovered a chronicle from the time which spoke of a wild woman, an Inuit, undoubtedly kidnapped by Breton sailors and arriving at the port of Antwerp. You could believe it was an animal because it was so rare then. Remember that the Vatican and Protestants too, then debated whether Native Americans were animals or humans to be baptized.

In the novel, there is an ode to the revolutionary force of books, which is hidden in a barrel of wine!

I have no ambition to spark a revolution! But novels are possible moments of reflection. I want to encourage my readers to think about our times. No one can love the current world, as we experience it! There are no more historical perspectives. Our society has become blind, we no longer see History, the connections, the links between the past and the present. Now, if we do not see these links can we be wise? For Erasmus, the links between the ancient world and his present world were obvious. Today, the obvious things are only those of the present. It makes me angry. I just want to nuance the view of the person who reads my novel a little.

Your next novel?

I am writing a novel set at the end of the 19th century in Antwerp, in the world of banks, Leopold II, the Congo and rubber. It will be called “The Wonders and the Mirage”.


The Wild Woman, ***, Jeroen Olyslaegers, translated from Dutch by Françoise Antoine, Stock, 506 pp., €23.90, digital €16.

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