The great writing of Michael Bijnens (°1990) was already noticed in his first written triptych O Falso Profeto (2011), Iris (2012) and Bloedspoor [Blood trace] (2013), pieces he wrote when he was still studying theatre at the RITCS in Brussels. In this triptych, themes and topics are discussed that are further elaborated in his following work. In O Falso Profeto, a prophet preaches in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. This – false – evangelism willplay a major role in La Linea (2013). Iris is about a luxury business in the brothel milieu with all its hard criminal and soft (family) aspects. In Bloedspoor, he exposes more family relationships and links them with unresolved issues from the Belgian collective memory, especially the case of the Brabant Killers. With the key question: who are the real criminals in all these stories? Is the evil in the system or in the individual? The years of drawn-out research, which started before the birth of Michael Bijnens is the raw material for Aperçu de l’inconnu (2015).
Facts and fiction
In his novel Cinderella (2015), Michael Bijnens flamboyantly describes how he grows up in a brothel as a child and teenager. In unvarnished language, he brings to the stage his mother the prostitute and sketches his life amidst the whores. This glimpse into that milieu probably contributed to the novel’s success, but it is still his writing style and the points of view from which he views his life that make the book worth reading. There is the black humour, there are the ruthless reflections on the mess and rubble in which he abides: about money, sex, love, violence, being young, living, in short, about the human condition.
Michael Bijnens mainly wants to write, to tell stories. He goes out into the world, to places where it is burning. Bijnens does not consider himself an adventurer, but he says he cannot do otherwise. When he is touched by something, if something won’t let him go, then he wants – no, he must – go there. He lived in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, he immersed himself in an evangelical sect, he travelled for a few months to Juárez in Mexico on the border with the US, he visited rough brothels, he spent time in the criminal and drug milieu. He went to Cairo when the revolt ignited there and resided in Jerusalem. He takes a firm hold of the problems on the ground, digs for the causes of the disputes and conflicts. Like a bulldog, he does not let go of his investigation.
He wants to communicate what he experienced in reality in Mexico, in the Middle East. Not as a journalist in a documentary series, but as a storyteller, as someone who approaches and describes people as intellectual and emotional beings. Facts go together with fiction. Facts are the events to be determined in reality; fiction is how those events are lived and experienced, how they are handled, and this differs from culture to culture, from group to group, from person to person. “What I retained from my childhood is the realisation that the world is so bizarre at most levels that you need a damn good storyteller to render it credibly. Maybe that’s what I want to do with fiction”, he says in an interview.
La Linea (2013) takes place on the border of Mexico and the US in Ciudad Juárez, “the most dangerous city in the world”, and focuses on the relationships between local evangelism, social exploitation, crime and drug-related violence. The spoken inner voice in the third person, the comments, descriptions, and dialogues between the ‘he’ and other characters, all these texts radiate a directness, paint – or better etch – very deeply and relentlessly a cruel reality. They carry within them a rawness, a madness, an intoxication, a craziness. All this is then packaged in an exciting whodunit. The words grab you by the throat, the sentences punch you in the stomach. An example: the opening sentences of Hij [He]:
On 23 February 2011, a day on which the wind froze and hung motionless in the air, and that in a desert, yes, that’s how unusually cold was it on that 23th of February 2011, the day it snowed lightly out of a sky that had never in history seen a cloud, on that day five armed men arrived in a white delivery van in a side street off a side street off Avenida Panamericana, …..(…)…., on that 23rd of February five men stormed out of a white delivery van into that rehabilitation centre, say, into that madhouse, and forced everyone to lie on the floor, except a man who had once been a writer and didn’t want to lay on the floor, because he hadn’t spoken the language in which his books were written for years and therefore no longer understood it, they just shot that man, in cold blood you could say, even though it seemed more like the five men from the white delivery van were cooking, because they’d pumped their bodies and brains full of cocaine in order to carry out the job they’d been assigned to do here on 23 February 2011 properly.
I can’t breathe.
Michael Bijnens likes to write long sentences, he piles subordinations and juxtapositions on top of one another, he likes to use unvarnished images. The words refer directly to rough reality. Bijnens is not a ‘writer of beautiful words’, he does not want to be accused of highbrow literature. And precisely that brings a unique, specific raw linguistic power to his work.
Bijnens is a damn good theatre teller. This can also be seen in Onzichtbare Man [Invisible Man] (2014) with Orkater, Amsterdam) and in Valley of Saints (2015, with BRONKS, Brussels). In the latter piece, which he created together with Aurelie di Marino, a female jihadist who has fled and wants to renounce her past (She) and a fabulously rich project developer in a suit (Ray) engage in a verbal boxing match on the terrace of a luxury villa. Between them moves Frank, the silent servant, a refugee who lost his wife and children in the armed conflict in Syria. His musical interventions provide a tight rhythm to the dialogues about the clashing worldviews. Ray and She proclaim their points of view, sometimes clearly, other times muffled; they twist themselves in reasoning, they spit out their visions that cross each other and emit fireworks, they doubt, and as a spectator you sit in between and are forced to actively reflect in a nuanced way.
In-depth research again
Then in 2015 there is Aperçu de l’inconnu (literally translated: ‘overview of the unknown’) under the motto ‘The known is finite. The unknown is infinite’ (T.H.Huxley). In Aperçu de l’inconnu, Bijnens is inspired by the investigation into the ‘Brabant Killers’.
Between 1982 and 1985 a (small?) group of people committed (weapon and car) thefts, robberies, and burglaries in various places in Belgium, with a lot of brutal violence. The name ‘Brabant Killers’ or Bende van Nijvel in Dutch was given them by the press after a night-time burglary in a supermarket in Nijvel. A total of 28 people were killed and 40 injured, and more than 30 years later the gang members are still unknown. The investigation was certainly chaotic in the beginning. That, and because the loot was small and the death toll high, was the reason that there was a suspicion that the judicial investigation was a cover-up operation from above, by the police and/or politicians.
As an investigative journalist, Michael Bijnens focuses on that investigation (and not on the case of the gang itself), and also gets involved, as was the case in the research for his earlier plays. He maniacally reviews numerous dossiers, and interviews those involved. From all this collected material, he distils a theatre text. Here again he mixes fiction, thoughts and emotions with the dossiers read, the facts. The text is a mix of the reality of the investigation and lived experiences of that reality. Nine characters speak consecutively in twenty scenes: a detective, his daughter, a sergeant, a security guard, an investigating judge… They make eloquently clear statements, ask questions, especially about their own role and part in the investigation. They confront themselves with dilemmas, relativise themselves, sometimes playfully and painfully funny, they expose their doubts, their powerlessness, their silent sorrow, their unanswered questions, their disquiet.
Haulotte – 30 September 1982
What can I say? Here in my neck, then, I feel the bite of a mosquito. Normally I still have time for a reflex. But that time doesn’t exist. I’d just got back off leave. During a fight in a bar, I’d got thumped a couple of times, like that. There was nothing else to do that day, so I was reduced to sticking up election posters. A passerby points out a robbery. I go rushing over. Just at that moment the perpetrators come lumbering out. And then, yeah, that mosquito bite. That leaden mosquito bite.
The characters in the play express doubts, assumptions: if that had not happened, then…, if someone had not been called away from an investigation, if a translation had been sent on time, if it had not itched,… then, who knows, they would have known more, it would have been different. The spectator/reader is given an overview of that unknown. Exciting, unpolished, true, penetrating. The text, however, transcends the investigation of the Killers and acquires a universal dimension: it is about recognisable, vulnerable people, people who searched and are searching for the true facts, people who perish, people who are confused, who struggle with themselves, feel imperfect. Allowing different characters to tell the story speaks to the imagination of the audience.
5. Gymnastics lesson
Daughter – 23 December 1982
After that business with the bath tub, a thing I could have sorted out as a child, my father thought he was the Poirot of the Pajottenland. I was in the infant class back then, or something. That afternoon a couple of older boys had shoved me into a reuther, one of those wooden springboards they use in gymnastics, they’d pushed me inside it and then stuffed some cushions in on top of me. After that they sat on top of me with their full weight. They couldn’t hear the fact that I was suffocating.
My teacher rang the police station immediately. They said my father was busy investigating a murder. His own daughter was nearly dead. My dad was more interested in his corpse that day than in me. Because of that I had to hang around waiting for over two and a half hours in the confines of my teacher’s BO until he arrived. In retrospect he thought for years that that telephone call from that smouldering teacher had made all the difference.
Michael Bijnens has already won several prizes for his craftsmanship, his unique style and for the substantive necessity of his writings. He is appreciated as the investigative journalist who searches for theatrical forms of expression and idiosyncratically mixes research, autobiography, thriller, monologues and dialogues. His second novel will be published in 2019, with a few moreplays in the pipeline.
Contact: email@example.com / +31614276616 / +32489341900
Written by Tuur Devens
Translated by Dan Frett and Rina Vergano
Tuur Devens (former teacher of Dutch, German and theater) is a theater critic and publicist at among others Theaterkrant, De Bond, World of Puppetry, Etcetera, Theater Maker. He is also the initiator of performances in various cultural centers, wrote books about puppet theater and sat on advisory theater committees.
- La Linea (2013) – published by Bebuquin in ‘De wereld bij mij, vier theaterteksten’
- Iris (2013)
- Bloedspoor (2013)
- De Wet deel III (2014)
- Onzichtbare Man (2014)
- Valley of Saints (2015)
- Aperçu de L’Inconnu (2015) (translated to German by Heike Baryga)