Seeking melancholy, armed with Belgian symbolist Rodenbach’s paean to a mournful city
The Basilica of the Holy Blood sits hidden up a dingy stairway. Every wall inside is painted with images of Christ’s suffering
A little over a hundred years ago, Bruges was not a destination for pleasure-seekers.
It was not the inviting postcard town of cobbled streets and canals. Nor was it the warm-hued escape of the 2008 dark comedy film In Bruges, absurd and full of life. In the medieval period, the Belgian city was a great trading centre, connected by the Zwin river to the sea. But, by the late 1400s, the river had silted, and the ships stopped coming. Business faded, people withdrew, and Bruges became a melancholic town.
Yet it was here that Georges Rodenbach, a Belgian symbolist writer, found his life-long muse. The town’s death-like atmosphere spoke to him profoundly. Having settled in Paris, Rodenbach returned to Bruges through his writing, perhaps nostalgic for a version of his Flemish homeland. His French novel Bruges-La-Morte (Dead Bruges) most deified the town’s grimness. Published in 1892, it tells the story of a widower, Hugues Viane, who moves to Bruges because it is the only place where he can mourn his dead wife properly. A dreary Bruges forms not the backdrop of the novel, but its anchor.
Bruges-La-Morte was lapped up by Rodenbach’s Parisian circles. And Bruges became a cult tourist destination, known for its medieval architecture and perennial gloom. When I discovered the book while making holiday plans, it seemed both novel and travel guide. Rodenbach even inserted images of buildings and streets so that readers could experience closely “the shadow" cast by the town. I took his book as my guide, and went to Bruges in search of sadness.
I arrived on a cold and grey May morning. The platform seemed deserted as the train pulled in, its emptiness perfect. Then the train doors opened and the platform was consumed by families and suitcases. Outside, there was a large parking lot with a bus stop at its centre and a kebab shop at the corner. Nothing seemed historic.
Following the swarm of tourists, I crossed the street and walked past a small park. The cobblestones began and the silent houses of the book appeared quickly. I had arrived in Bruges-La-Morte. In the distance, a bell tower loomed above the rooftops. Viane was haunted for years by its sound. But I couldn’t find the tower easily. The streets turned in directions I couldn’t predict. The brick walls made the lanes seem narrow, endless.
When I finally reached the tower, the bell wasn’t ringing. But it silently surveilled the Grand Place market, which was busy, as in the book. Horse carriages were waiting for tourists, children were running around statues, and customers were wander drunkenly in and out of restaurants.
In Bruges-La-Morte, the rest of the town seemed empty, the buildings menacing. Viane found solace in the people-less streets, in the incessant rain, and the imposing din of belfries. He led an austere, Catholic life in a big house overlooking a canal. One room was a shrine to his wife and included a plait of her hair.
I walked along the canal to Viane’s house on Quai du Rosaire. Or at least to the building that could have been his home. On the bridge in front, a group of American grandmas were trying to take a group photograph. Beside them, a Chinese student coaxed his unimpressed mother to pose with a beer bottle.
The house had been halved. Perfectly divided between what one needs and what one desires—a money exchange and a chocolate shop. I bought hot chocolate and took it to the Church of Notre Dame (in the book, the Church of Our Lady).
The church is dark and cluttered. A sculpture of a cross-bearing hand emerging from a skull greeted me at the entrance. Fading graves lie between the pews; saints glare from the walls. A couple knelt before the skull sculpture, taking a selfie. Then they lit a candle. I wondered if they prayed for joy or suffering. Many rituals in the church play out like this—the fetishizing of pain while performing piety. No wonder Viane found sanctuary here.
One day after visiting the Church of Notre Dame, Viane noticed a woman in the crowd who looked like his dead wife. He tried to follow but lost her in the tangled streets. He searched daily, until he found her on stage at the local theatre—her name was Jane. Smitten by the resemblance, Viane rented Jane an apartment and visited her nightly. His sorrow lifted, and the town seemed a cheerful place.
I spent my day along the quays, whose broodiness reminded Viane of his own sadness. I looked for the theatre where he met her but found a veil of construction sheets—my own tragedy, perhaps.
As Viane walked, the townspeople watched him, using mirrors placed above their doors. Now, mirrorless buildings stared back, pretty and pristine. There was something eerie in their precision. Boats floated by in the canal, and the people in them stared. I, too, was being watched. Tied across two street corners, I noticed a banner depicting the Procession of the Holy Blood. It seemed ominous.
Viane did not know happiness for long. Jane turned out to be a femme fatale. As he lost himself in her charms, he also lost his mind. During the Procession of the Holy Blood, he strangled her with his dead wife’s hair. Bruges became a ghost town once again.
The Basilica of the Holy Blood sits hidden up a dingy stairway. Every wall inside is painted with images of Christ’s suffering. Chanting permeated the room as both believers and the faithless lined up to see a relic of Christ’s blood.
But it was not yet time for the procession, so I visited Viane’s happy place, the Saint John’s Hospital. Viane found peace in its herb gardens, watching the nuns walk past beds of fragrant rosemary and marjoram. In the moments he spent here, he thought he might cure his sadness.
The sky remained dark even as I left Bruges. Trudging back to the station, I gazed at the town where Viane had mourned. Shoe sales and bikini trends screamed from behind glass windows. Waffles and fries offered themselves. The further I walked, the more souvenir shops, lace boutiques and Belgian chocolate stores I found. Rodenbach’s Bruges had been pious, ridden with guilt. But here was a Bruges of gluttony. It was an antique preserved in snow-globe convenience, shiny enough for any tourist to hold.
This was the Bruges I had seen, and the image I would carry home. Even in the most obscure corner, it had been hard to find a moment alone. Rodenbach wrote, “Resemblances are always in the general outline." So, I had blotted out the details, obliterated the happy people and their shopping bags. In the cracks between the old houses and new bistros, the churches and selfie sticks, I had tried to resurrect a dead town that was no more. To travel the many lives and sorrows between Viane’s and my own, all I had was fiction.
Poorna Swami is a poet, writer and dancer based in Bengaluru.
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