The Factory of Facts
In recent years, American society has become accustomed to thinking in terms of “hyphenated” Americans, whether African, Asian, Latino, or other. While “Belgian- American” is not an ethnic category that springs readily to mind, Luc Sante’s The Factory of Facts is a unique first-person account of the contradictions, subtleties, and nuances of a life lived with exactly that ethnicity. The Brooklyn-based writer is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of Low-Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1990), one of the most fascinating and entertaining histories ever written of the dirty underbelly of New York City. An only child, he emigrated from Verviers, Belgium, with his parents in 1959. After settling briefly in Summit, New Jersey, the family returned to Belgium and then abruptly re-emigrated, resuming their New Jersey life in 1960.
Even Americans well-informed about Europe are likely to overlook Belgium. Brussels especially may be known today as a European political, military, and diplomatic capital and as a major embarkation point for travelers, but little of the country’s history and culture is known outside European circles. Even in Europe, “Belgian” is a designation that invites derision. Belgium has been a nation only since 1830, when Belgians gained their independence from the Austrian Hapsburgs. One of the few Western European nations to remain a constitutional monarchy, from its inception it has yoked together two major linguistic communities—Flemish and Walloon—whose relations in recent years have become more and more strained. Brussels persists as a somewhat anomalous Francophonic urban center cut off in Flanders, far removed from the impoverished Walloon (a quasi- Germanic French dialect) areas to the southeast bordering Germany, Luxembourg, and France.
Bearing these constraints in mind, Luc Sante calls the land of his birth an “artificial” country, observing furthermore that “Belgian” jokes circulate in Western Europe and occupy the kind of place that Polish jokes do in American folk culture. The celebrated British comedy troupe Monty Python once suggested as much in a characteristically outrageous skit. In it, Michael Palin presided as the smarmy host of a television game show in which the object of the contest was to think up derogatory terms or phrases for ethnic groups. The chosen target was “Belgians,” and the mere utterance of the word occasioned Palin’s snide chortling. The winning epithet, Palin exulted, was “bloody fat Belgian bastards!” Thunderous applause in response closed out the brief skit.
Perhaps the heavy Belgian cuisine was behind the joke. As many who have been to Belgium will, Sante associates the country with fried potatoes—especially twice-fried frites served in paper cones with mayonnaise on the side, the omnipresent buttered slices of bread with various toppings called tartines, and strong, heavy beer brewed by Trappist monks. Food is also at the center of many of the instances of culture shock Sante describes in his family’s first forays into American supermarkets, as they encountered such delights as iceberg lettuce, “Chef Boy-ar-dee” canned spaghetti in sauce, or the salty club soda that was the closest approximation they could locate of eau gazeuse, the effervescent bottled water considered a staple by Belgian and French families.
Despite the insults to their palates provided by mass-produced American groceries, the Sante family experienced life in their new world as a rise in class status, even if the riches of the late Eisenhower-era United States did not quite live up to the supercharged fantasies of the Belgian imagination back home. The author conveys the sense that their ancestral home, in the eastern end of the Ardennes region, is something like the West Virginia of Belgium, with a longstanding poverty and bleakness exacerbated by the hardships of the post-World War Two era. Verviers is a small city not far from the German border and due north of Luxembourg. To many Americans, this region is best remembered as the locale of the epic Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
Whatever the hardships of the old country, Sante’s parents did not necessarily embrace all aspects of their adopted land. The stereotype applied to earlier generations of immigrants has been that they urged their children to immerse themselves in the new culture. Sante’s parents, however, remained skeptical and critical regarding many features of American life. They were appalled by the level of education their son was receiving, which seemed infantile in comparison with what he would have learned at a comparable stage in Belgium. His...
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