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"The Meantime: Nine Short Stories from Brussels"

A collection of short stories revolving around Brussels, The Meantime is a welcome addition to the scattered literature in which Bruxelles-la-Grise plays a leading role. Which is not to say that a reader without the urge to indulge in fantasies about this city will be disappointed: the tales penned by these nine young cosmopolitan authors vary considerably in style and form and tackle a range of themes, from the trials of multinational relationships, to the tribulations of a Commission employee, to the lot of Brussels’ underclass.

Neither partisan nor plaintive, these stories break through the tiring dichotomy that haunts the bar-chat of many Brussels expats: do we live in a scuzzy, drizzly provincial town or an exciting and carnavalesque metropolis? And if the authors represent a mish-mash of cultures and styles, their protagonists nonetheless share certain traits. Young people, they are driven by desire while they struggle to make sense of lives marked by doubt and transience.

Yet what they may lack in terms of purpose, they make up for in canny observations. “Here in Brussels I would be foolish to guess the time by the colour of the sky,” remarks one, while another lambasts the “well-to-do revolutionaries” of Saint-Gilles. Rambling around town, one character observes: “The streets here are like nowhere else: almost all of them have two names. You can be in one and say that you are in another and still be telling the truth.” Elsewhere, a weary EU official arrives back in Woluwe, where “Elegant fin-de-siècle houses stand side by side at grossly varying heights, like adolescent boys lining up for a photo.” 

All credit due to these authors who have tackled a city that writers appear to avoid. Books such as Johnny Bruxelles by Philippe Blasband, Villette by Charlotte Brönte and the ribald Inspector Canardo help inject some imagination and mystery into the city. Likewise, The Meantime infuses Brussels with its own tales and adventure – a knife fight in the Palais de Justice, a teenage romance atop Parking 58, a tortured journey on the regional train to Ottignies...

In sum, an accomplished and interesting collection, which benefits from the different styles and personalities of its young writers. If many are quick to lambast Brussels or sing its praises, honest, thoughtful explorations of what it is to be young in Brussels in the early 21st century are few and far between. Though there is still much more to be said on the subject, so let’s hope that this is not the last we hear from our very own Generation BXL.

Brussels Creative Writers, 163 pages, €8.50 

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A launch event will take place at Passa Porta on September 29, 2012. www.themeantime.be