Mon 10 April 2017

citybooks | The slums tour

A few times a year, the Flemish-Dutch House deBuren (“the neighbours”) sends a group of writers and a photographer to a city and gives them two weeks to look around and think. We put the stories and pictures they bring back with them on the citybooks website, which is now starting to bear a strong resemblance to a small city itself. For his internship at deBuren, Max Urai wrote a travel guide about that virtual city.

travel guide citybooks banner

In this eighth tour, we’ll walk by four stories about disgusting tablecloths, bulging ashtrays, slovenly folks, scum, outsiders and creeps.


Thomas Gunzig's Reservation

We start our tour with a citybook that gains an extra-funny edge if you know that the author recited it to a bunch of “Charleroian cultural bigwigs”: Thomas Gunzig’s The Reservation. There are three or four stories on the citybooks site written by authors who hated the city they were sent to (Abdelkader Benali’s Down and Dirty in Sheffield is a very good example), but there are few who are as grumpy and as icily sarcastic as Gunzig.

‘By now I was definitely in Charleroi. Or more exactly, in a geographical spot called Charleroi but which seemed a city in name only, apart from the fact that it had things like a town hall, a police force and perhaps even, as absurd as that may seem, a land registry.

I had already resigned myself to the fact that, at this hour and in this place, there was no chance now of finding any kind of toothbrush.’

Read & listen to The Reservation


‘Signs of Life – A Topography of Purgatory’

We’ll continue with Signs of Life – A Topography of Purgatory, Frederik Willem Daems’ tribute to cult author JHM Berckmans. Daems’ story takes place in the café ‘de Raaf’, a pub in Antwerp where Berckmans set several of his stories. It’s a grubby affair.

‘You’re drunk and excuse yourself for what you’re not able to do. You don’t do this in so many words. A simple ‘sorry’ must suffice. No matter whether or not they nod sympathetically or take offence. You haven’t killed anyone and you won’t be the first to have fired the white ball off the table, as the cracks in the bar’s ceramic floor tiles testify. The house dog, a clipped bichon frisé with a purple stripe in the quiff of its fur yaps in circles around it as if it’s a threat of some kind.’

Read & listen to Signs of Life – A Topography of Purgatory


© Martijn van de Griendt (citybook Ostend)


Saskia de Coster's 'A Hundred and Forty Kilos of Love'

Our third stop is a story by an author I absolutely fell in love with during my time on citybooks: Saskia de Coster, with her mad and subversive A Hundred and Forty Kilos of Love. A depressed, morbidly obese lesbian travels with an FBI-friend of hers to Skopje to pick up a mail-order bride:

‘Meanwhile, Joycelyn had scaled the summit of a potato mountain. “Look!” she cried. She had a bug-eyed youth with a large carving knife in her sights and was keeping him covered. “A scullion who chops vegetables, bread, cheese and meat non-stop. A much more human touch than a food processor. Chop for us, young man!”

The lout chopped the vegetables as if his life depended on it. In the twinkling of an eye, the mountains of food grew yet higher.

“Eat!” Joycelyn commanded me.’

Read & listen to A Hundred and Forty Kilos of Love


Tim Etchells writes ‘A Sad Tale of Scarton from Endland (sic)’

We end with the citybook by the English avant-garde theatre maker Tim Etchells. BureauGrotesque - A Sad Tale of Scarton from Endland (sic) tells us about a British tourist who gets drunk in Lisbon, loses his backpack, ends up in prison and in general doesn’t have a very nice experience in the Portuguese capital city. I’m particularly fan of the David Foster Wallace-y details that Etchells scatters throughout his text, like fruit-flavoured sprinkles.

‘Thinking he should get exit fast, pulling his coat up tight and raising the hood to largely obscure his identity, Scarton descended the prison staircase as rapidly as possible, spilling through the double doors at the bottom at speed and out into Lisabon, merging with its shadows, its bustle and its night, in search of his love Sophistia.

Scartan went first to the address on Rua Psychosis where his love had told him that she lived but it turned out to be a boarded up building, partly closed down, and partly given over to a wholesale business re-selling genetically modified crops that were not fit for human consumption.’

Read & listen to BureauGrotesque - A Sad Tale of Scarton from Endland (sic)


With this we have come to the end of this tour. Thank you for reading and don’t forget the guide.


Also read

- The musical tour
- The experimental tour
- Recommendations from the guide



Translated from Dutch by Annelies Dotselaere, who did an internship at deBuren as part of her Master in Translation at the KU Leuven Campus Brussels.


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