introductory speech Finnish Girl

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this special little event here at UCG, for the presentation of JD’H’s latest novel. More about Johan in a second, and more about his new novel as well, but before that, allow me to return to the first two words of this presentation: good morning.

It is now, what, somewhere between twelve noon and half past twelve. By Belgian standards, it is noon, and even if we haven’t had our midday meal yet (the complimentary sandwiches are awaiting us), Dutch speaking Belgians would have started this presentation with “goede middag”. It is in our culture to have lunch at or around 12 noon, 12.30, so from about twelve we say “middag”. Well, the question of how to translate “good afternoon” or “goede middag”, and when to use these expressions, are the types of problems we language teachers and students of intercultural communication like to deal with.

The study of a language, its grammar and vocabulary; and the concomitant political, economic, social and cultural frameworks makes for endless pleasurable discussions in the staff room, where I had the good fortune to first meet Johan D’Haveloose many years ago. We were much younger then, but Johan has since managed to retain his boyish good looks, his footballer’s physique and his exquisite taste in clothes. The first is undoubtedly a gift of nature, the second the result of many years of physical exercise, but the third, his love of the more refined expressions of culture and also of material culture, is a true characteristic of Johan’s, and – may I say – can be taken as a metaphor for his conduct in life. Ever the gentleman, soft spoken, understated, slightly reticent. Not quite bashful, but never boastful. A man of wit and repartee, not of raucous laughter or booming voice. Hard working, but private about it. Someone who puts students first, second and last. Not one to lead packs, but neither one to howl with the wolves. Rather someone who quietly comes and goes, forging strong bonds of like-minded colleagues, comrades maybe, but only after many years. Someone who does not forget. Forgiving and forgetting is for the more weak-hearted, but for Johan not-forgetting is an art. He knows the birthdays of literally everyone he values and cherishes, and he has memorised your star sign characteristics, just because he cares. Life may not have spared him, but he manages not to be bitter, but to cherish. Cherish his wife, the offspring and the grandchildren; his students and his alumni, whom he manages to keep track of through their vagaries; his many friends.

Johan D’Haveloose long ago introduced me to the study and teaching of intercultural communication. His idea was (and for the benefit of my students present here, I can say that I have adopted this predilection of his) that students should be rewarded for the learning activities they engage in, not be punished for those few items which they manage to forget between the moment of class and the moment of the exam. He was therefore quite open about the fact that he would not flunk any student, on the proviso that you learnt stuff during his class. So, students would gladly read books for him (strangely, reading books seems to be an almost insurmountable task for today’s students), give presentations about what they had read, and join their fellow students on the road towards intercultural knowledgeability.

And so, it is this gentleman who, when time came to retire from teaching at university college, decided to apply his knowledge, his exquisite command of language, his large and varied knowledge of all things cultural, his flair, his way with words and with people, to apply all this to writing.

He started off with a little gem on intercultural communication, in which his beloved dachshunds are the allegorical protagonists. The book pairs witty language and clever insightfulness about intercultural differences with an insider look into Johan’s own life. One learns about his life in “huis clos”, behind the doors, French windows and curtains of his mansion-like abode in a sleepy corner of the sleepy Flemish village of Zomergem. And one learns much more about life in the wide intercultural world.

And then the author suddenly realised there was not just a novel in him, but a whole series of crime novels, all set in or around the things he knows well and is therefore able to lovingly describe. But make no mistake. Even if the author lovingly wields his pen, and the reader is treated to cultural tidbits, witticisms, wordplay and double entendres, his subject matter is crime and the solving of it. Be prepared for suspension and a sleepless night for these are novels you do not put to one side, no, you are dragged through the story and you wish to know whodunnit. The series headlines detectives Bonnard and Brunello, and after the Dutch language novels Moordgriet and De sterspeler, there is now a double billing, out simultaneously in English as The Finnish Girl and in Dutch as Het Finse Meisje.

And so, we come to the subject of this third crime novel. Fear not, I will not smuggle spoilers into my next few paragraphs, but will merely introduce the uninitiated into the world of Bonnard and Brunello. Just like in the first two novels, people who know the author will recognise more than a little in terms of setting and characters.

First, let me present the ravishingly beautiful inspector Bonnard to you, a lady of intelligence and class, whose first name may not be the only thing which remains mysterious throughout the series. She heads a crime squad in the city of Ghent, and likes to run a tight ship. She is sharp-witted, hard to fool, and always on top of things. And should you recognise some traits of the author in the fact that Bonnard is somewhat of a control freak, and a lover of fine material rewards, wait till I have introduced her sidekick. Giovanni Brunello – his first name clearly references his spiritual father – is a cultured optimistic man, who lavishes gifts and bon mots on ladies, and prides himself on his womanising ways, for which he is sternly reprimanded by his lover and boss Bonnard. He would like to move in with her, but she is far too much of a realist to allow him to move in after only two novels. We will see how that evolves as the series runs on.

Bonnard and Brunello return from a holiday in Rome to be confronted with more than just ordinary office politics. People are trying to nudge themselves between the two protagonists, so there is bloodshed in the air. Woe betide the woman who insinuates herself between our two wonderful main characters.

And then of course, there is the main story. Just like in D’Haveloose’s first booklet, Dasha the dazzling dachshund, his insightful knowledge of cultures and of intercultural misunderstandings are put centre stage with the stories of a number of Erasmus students in Ghent, more specifically the Mercator campus just to the other side of the railroad station. The eponymous Finnish girl is a language and translation student there, and she meets up with people from diverse nationalities within the Erasmus community. I cannot divulge any details, but this being a crime novel and a whodunnit, you need not be surprised if people get killed.

The story’s main characters are modelled on friends, relatives and colleagues of Johan’s, and you will certainly recognise some. But they are also people of flesh and blood, genuine representatives of the people of Ghent, the students and staff of this university, the friends that populate the universe of Johan D’Haveloose. To start with the dean, whether he kills or gets killed I will not reveal. He is given a sidekick who, in all honesty Johan, does not do her real-life counterpart any justice, but I guess that is artistic license for you. Then there is Bernard Barnes, the international coordinator, who speaks Dunglish and speaks it a lot, and who manipulates the system to his own advantage. I wonder if he gets killed off. The intercultural skills teacher is (and I quote) the “very likeable lecturer, Giovanni Minnaert.” No points for guessing whether he dies or survives without so much as a scratch or a blemish.

I would just like to quote from the description of the English teacher Walter Coleridge (which is a very thin disguise for a former colleague of ours).

A shabbily dressed man in his fifties, head and shoulders slightly bent forward, came in their direction. [Inspector] Johansson couldn’t help but think that his gait was caused by too heavy a school satchel or by turning to his students all the time when writing on the blackboard. He was the opposite of a fashion addict. […]

Walter [Coleridge] was in fact a puny-looking man, just skin and bones, with a parched face, Venetian blond pig’s hair and a five o’clock shadow in which from time to time food rests slumbered, and his hair was always scruffy and uncombed.

His off-white shirt would be a challenge for any Dash advertisement and his beige-coloured jacket had obviously seen better days. It was simply impossible to make a good impression at first sight for someone like him. Saying that he lacked style was the understatement of the year. On top of that, he was saddled with a name – although it goes without saying that his father was to blame for it too – that he could never live up to. Initials are indeed often used in the administration and ‘ad valvas’ and so students get lectures from W.C. – not really something to look forward to.”

The Erasmus students are described with careful and loving detail, and their various roles as Erasmus buddies, students and young adults with lives to live are painted carefully and lovingly. I for one learnt a lot about what it means to be an Erasmus student in Ghent. I could tell you whodunnit but I won’t. I can advise you to buy and read the book. I can promise you that Johan D’Haveloose certainly “dunnit” again.

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