In Le Coq small talk we with writer Dieter Rogiers. Also in his pitch-black thriller debut, which just won the Fred Braeckman Award Blunt knifewhich is set in the near future in a completely dilapidated Brussels, that café is a small free port.
“The city was already dead, but they forgot to tell her.” In Blunt knife, the thriller debut by Dieter Rogiers, which has just won the Fred Braeckman Award, Brussels is in total decline. In the absence of Flanders and the EU, who have left their capital, some rival corrupt mayors are taking the bait. “This city is an oyster,” says one of those mayors with a different metaphor. “You need a dull knife to pry her open.” This also introduces a weapon in an intrigue that involves not only a police commissioner, an oligarch, an editor-in-chief of the local newspaper and, above all, a father and a daughter. Father and daughter grew apart a long time ago, but the former, who is also the first-person narrator, is now given 48 hours, the duration of his residence permit in the capital, to come from Flanders to find out what dark machinations his daughter is now involved in. could have been fished out of the canal dead.
One of the reasons why Dieter Rogiers stayed in Brussels after studying screenwriting at the RITS – now the RITCS – is that the big city has to offer both a backdrop and a reservoir of stories. “You think you already know the city, but then you turn down a street and come across something you had never noticed in all those years. That’s the fantastic thing about Brussels.”
According to storyteller Rogiers – he is a professional copywriter – the idea for his debut already germinated in 2015. That’s when he first mentioned the words “blunt knife” in the short story ‘The Pearl Fisherman’, with which he came second in the BRUZZ story competition. “I wrote that short story 24 hours before the deadline, but that opening line about that blunt knife stuck in my head afterwards, because it said something about what Brussels is to me. When I suddenly had more time during the Covid crisis, without cafes and cinemas, I started working on the book. I didn’t immediately want to write a novel of three to four hundred pages. I could afford something longer than the ten or fifteen page short stories I had written so far, but I still wanted to limit it. In the end, the book turned out to be slightly longer than the novella I had in mind. But it’s all about one main character, one city, one case, and one time lock of 48 hours. This is how you quickly end up in the thriller genre, in which the demons of the main character and the city meet.”
“I like the thriller genre because it requires a pure form of writing. A thriller allows you to be short and sweet thought to say, but also offers space to elaborate subjectively on an idea or theme. Especially with a first-person character whose head you can get into.”
A thriller often also involves established structures and rules that make the plot work. “I did indeed experiment a lot with that structure over the course of those two and a half years of writing. With index cards and other structural tricks from writing gurus. But that doesn’t really help when it comes to actually writing. I know exactly where I want to start, I know approximately where I want to end, and along the way I have certain points along which I meander. That’s the way I usually work. The writing process guides me. I still want a little freedom to go in a different direction if I want to. Alfred Hitchcock said that it became boring for him the moment he had to start shooting on set. Preparing the film was the most fun. Something similar happens to me: if I put too much preparation into it, I no longer enjoy writing.”
Yet Rogiers also learned that some formulas are reused because they simply work. The reader cannot help but be surprised by one of the most important plot twists in the book, which shows that the first-person narrator has also mastered the game of his unreliable fellow players. Rogiers: “I also really enjoy reading the thriller subgenre with the unreliable narrator. The fact that you cannot rely one hundred percent on what he is telling you adds to the layering.” And it fits within the theme, like the painting The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Bruegel, which plays a role in the book in which the fallen angels try to drag the rest down with them. “It’s almost impossible to avoid that if you want to participate in Brussels,” says Rogiers. “I think everyone breaks rules in some way. Sometimes on a large scale, sometimes with something small, for example by crossing the street when the light is still red. People from outside the city are still surprised by this, but the city has its own laws. If that bothers you, it will be difficult to live in Brussels.”
While in his short story ‘The pearl fisherman’ the oyster Brussels occasionally gave up a pearl as soon as you pried the city open with a blunt knife, the Brussels of the first-person narrator in this book is much darker. “The protagonist has seen the city deteriorate and also had personal reasons for leaving the sinking ship. He’s certainly a more bitter man than I am. I can identify with many of the things he says, but his tone is much harsher and he has lost all hope. Not me, as long as Brussels is not left to its fate and to the forces that want to maintain the status quo. There is still a lot to be solved – the structure with the nineteen municipalities, the dilapidation and garbage collection, to name but a few. But there are also hopeful initiatives. Such as the citizens who take matters into their own hands with an initiative such as Picnic The Streets of Growfunding. The Brussels identity is also growing. People dare to admit that they are Brussels residents first and foremost.”
Given the atmosphere of the book, it will come as no surprise that underground Brussels provides a number of locations for Blunt knifesuch as the tunnels of metro line 3 and the quadrilateres, the underground spaces beneath the South Station. “Determining locations was a difficult exercise, because on the one hand you don’t want to choose too predictable places like the Palace of Justice, but on the other hand you also need locations where readers can imagine something in order to feel involved.”
For the atmosphere of Blunt knife Rogiers also appears to have found inspiration from one of his role models: the English writer and secret agent Graham Greene. “He started his career as a film critic, and I also wrote DVD reviews for ten years. The atmosphere of the book is influenced by the way Greene describes Vienna The third man. Vienna is also a city that has been left behind by everything and everyone and where everyone still tries to do their own business in order to earn some money and move up. Another source of inspiration is the American writer Richard Brautigan, who always wrote in short chapters, which makes it easy to read. I hope that many people in Brussels will read my novel. The fact that you can easily finish a chapter in a subway ride is deliberate.”
Blunt knife (160 p., 20 euros) has just been published by Uitgeverij Vrijdag, www.uitgeverijvrijdag.be