Gangrene – Black Venus by Jeff Geeraerts.
The Great African novel from Flanders
The first part of the Gangrene cycle, Gangrene – Black Venus, is set in the Belgian Congo at the end of the 1950s. These are the years before independence, when the colony experienced its finest hour. Against this backdrop, Geeraerts portrays a colonial civil servant who frees himself from the oppressive constraints of the Western bourgeois mentality. In his own words, the protagonist says, ‘I am at once a heathen and God. God does not exist. I am God.’
In a fluent, evocative style, Geeraerts describes the obsessive love of this white colonial for a black woman. The protagonist leaves western civilisation further and further behind him and descends into an orgiastic, quasi-mystic way of life, combining ritual and instinct, violence and eroticism. His life consists of hunting, sleeping, eating, drinking and copulating: man in his most primitive state. He writes, ‘I shed my culture gradually, piece by piece, and felt myself nearing the blissful state of innocence.’ Gangrene – Black Venus is not just a colonial novel, it is primarily the story of a romantic ideal. It is about man’s longing to find paradise in nature, a paradise where he can experience his freedom to the full. Geeraerts then demonstrates the consequences of this freedom in a most ruthless manner.
Gangrene – Black Venus is one of the most talked-about novels from post-war Flanders. The controversy surrounding the publication was astounding. First the Belgian government awarded the novel the national prose prize, then that self-same government seized the book in order to investigate its lascivious character.
Applauded as brilliant, then decried for ‘extolling of racism and pornography’; however shocked conformist Belgium might have been, no-one could really deny that seldom had a writer approached such a sensitive subject with such monumental daring. Thirty-five years after the publication of Gangrene – Black Venus, Geeraerts revised all four parts of the legendary cycle.
Although the cultural climate has changed entirely, none of the books has lost anything in impact. They retain an all-pervading authenticity that still shocks to this day.