Bob is a Belgian/Flemish author with over 40 books published in various languages, including French, German, Spanish, Swedish, Slovenian, Italian, Polish, (Brazilian) Portuguese, Russian, and – fortunately for us – English.
His writing is informed by extensive travel across countries as diverse as Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Mozambique, Burundi, Lebanon, Iraq, Kosovo, and Myanmar (Burma), to name just a few.
His latest novel, Alejandro’s Lie, is a cross-over between literature and noir/suspense. Set in a fictional South American country in the eighties, it is a literary warning against autocracies. It explores Alejandro’s conflict in choosing between escape and love.
Alejandro’s Lie is voted “Best Political Thriller of the Year 2021” in the Best Thriller Book Awards on bestthrillers.com
What drew you to being an author?
Maybe it sounds cliché, but nothing in my youth prepared me to be a writer. Although a European, I’m representative of the American concept of the “self-made man.” My parents were typical Flemish: hard-working middle-class people who wanted the best for their four sons – a steady job with a nice income, a house of our own, a wife, and two children. I didn’t fit in that template since I was a dreamer and a reader.
The older I got, the more alienated I felt from the Flemish way of life. You see, in our history, we have been invaded and ruled by almost all West-European countries, which turned us into secretive and, at first glance, submissive people. In other words, we learned to be devious and sneaky; at least I thought I was devious and slippery, ready to tackle the world.
When I was nineteen, I left my childhood home and moved in with a lovely woman who painted and drew. Being a young macho buck, I wanted to compete with her – what could I do to show her I was artistic too? I figured that being an avid reader, I should be able to write. Ha! I started with fantasy short stories, which I thought were more accessible than literary ones. In my youthful opinion, you could do anything that came into your mind in fantasy. It took me years to understand that every genre in fiction demands perseverance and clarity. After that, I wrote a literary novel totally different from the debut I’d fantasized about – and found a publisher. The rest is history.
Alejandro’s Lie is said to be a literary warning against autocracies. What inspired you to explore this concept?
I travelled regularly in authoritarian governed countries and noticed how careful people were during encounters. How would you feel walking the streets, knowing that police can pick you up at any moment and jail you when you haven’t had a chance to consult an advocate? How would you feel knowing that government spies are checking what you say, how you behave, and who you meet everywhere you go? How can you know that the friendly man or woman in the mall who initiates a conversation with you isn’t an informant of the authorities, slyly trying to provoke you into saying something wrong? That situation creates an atmosphere of distrust, even paranoia. The constant stress causes depression and other mental difficulties. It’s tough to describe; you need to experience it before understanding the depth of fear and complexity of everyday life.
Allow me to give a small example: in the nineties, my photographer and I crossed the border between Thailand and Burma (the US still calls this South-East Asian country Burma, despite the name change to Myanmar in the eighties). Normally, as Europeans, we had to visit Burma by plane, so our visit to the military dictatorship via Thailand was, in essence, illegal back then. Once in Burma, we went eastward, trying to interview the Wa rebels, one of the many ethnic armed groups in the civil war that has been plaguing Burma since the sixties. Our journey brought us to the Golden Triangle, the biggest opium producer in the world after Afghanistan. We travelled via dirt roads in the jungle, regularly seeking cover in the shrubs when yet another caravan of blinded SUVs filled with drugs raced by, accompanied by clouds of dust.
For family reasons, I needed to fly back earlier to Europe than my photographer. I booked a flight to Bangkok from a local airport near Nay Pyi Taw. In the departure lounge – too-chic a word for a place that looked like a decrepit school refectory – a portly middle-aged man with sparse oiled hair approached me and asked where I came from and why I had visited Myanmar. He seemed jovial, but also self-assured, and something in his manner, in his eyes, made my skin crawl. I didn’t tell him I was a travel writer but posed as a geeky ornithologist who had studied the many exotic bird species of Myanmar. After a while, he scanned the room, a sure sign that he’d lost interest in me. Then, while I was still singing the praise of the birdlife in his country, he abruptly left me alone.
A few minutes later, I still felt cold to the core when armed soldiers guided us, finger at the trigger, to our plane. My interlocutor was gone; I didn’t see him amongst the passengers.
Can you please share the blurb for Alejandro’s Lie?
Terreno, 1983, Latin America. After a dictatorship of ten years, the brutal junta, led by General Pelarón, seems to waver.
Alejandro Juron, the guitarist of the famous poet and folk singer Victor Pérez who’s been executed by the junta, is released from the infamous prison The Last Supper. The underground resistance wants Alejandro to participate in its fight again. But Alejandro has changed.
Consumed by guilt over the death of his friend Victor, whom he betrayed to his tormentors, Alejandro becomes the unintended center of a web of intrigue that culminates in a catastrophic insurrection and must choose between love and escape.
A love story, a thriller, and an analysis of the mechanisms that govern a dictatorship, Alejandro’s Lie is a gripping novel about violence, betrayal, resistance, corruption, guilt, and love.
Terreno is a fictional country. Why did you use this rather than a real one?
I opted for a fictional country to provide the broadest narrative leeway. I pondered a long time before I finally chose Terreno, a Latin-American setting in the eighties. The South-American dictatorships of the seventies and the eighties contained all the DNA of modern autocracies. Terreno means land or country if you like. I based it primarily on the seventies military dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile, mixed with elements of the authoritarian regimes in Bolivia and Argentine. In this manner, I could cover many aspects that can happen when you live under the diktat of a cruel and suppressing state.
While Alejandro’s Lie is fiction, it is grounded in truth. Do you find it hard to stay hopeful about humanity in the face of these realities?
In one word: yes. Or should I answer: yes and no? The realities of this world are indeed frightening. During my travels, I’ve met and interviewed people who were so obsessed with a doctrine, a religion, racist ideas, or vengeance – to name just a few reasons which tend to “dehumanize” people – that they were capable of terrible deeds. They slit throats of babies, they gang-rape women, they shoot pregnant mothers-to-be in the belly, they push prisoners out of helicopters … the list of atrocities seems endless, and the madmen in our midst use them all when they get the chance. But everywhere, even in the harshest war zones, I met more good-willing people than people who are, in my eyes, lunatics. When I talked to the latter, I always wondered how they were as babies, toddlers, children. What happened to turn them into monsters?
I paid the price for some grim encounters with violence. For years after I stopped traveling, I suffered a period of terrible nightmares that propelled me out of my bed until I crashed against a wall, the door, a cupboard – PTSD symptoms. With the help of dopamine-agonists, the nightmares slowly tuned down, but I know that people actually fighting in war have far harsher symptoms, which often drive them to alcohol and drug abuse.
One day, maybe we’ll understand the roots of hate, aggression, and deranged sexual lusts, so they become treatable. But, even then, we’ll have to watch for the power of greed that reigns over us. For instance, climate change will steer us to a world-wide catastrophic breakdown if we don’t change our ways.
I’m an old guy now; I try to prepare myself for the biggest adventure of every life: death. But I fear and suffer for the future of my children and grandchildren. In what world will they live?
Do you have any tips for new authors?
There are no clear rules for aspiring authors to blossom into good writers, so I can only answer for myself. I plundered the local library in our small village from a very young age. I read everything I could get my hands on with no notion of genre or style. Instead, I relied on that indescribable feeling of wonder when I read books that I liked. I wanted to create that same feeling in the minds of others, and that longing drove me to the erratic path that always accompanies a writing life.
So, new authors, read anything you can lay your hands on. When you don’t like a book, at first don’t try to analyze why; just turn to another novel. Then, slowly, almost automatically, your analytic potential will awaken. When it does, after reading, write down why you liked the book in a few sentences. Then, if you have the spark in you, it is only a matter of time before your own style will surface. Good luck and prepare for a bumpy ride!
What’s next? What are you working on now?
My wife smiles and shakes her head when I tell her – for the umpteenth time – that I’m going to write my last book. “You already said that years ago, and since then, you published another six books,” she says. Okay, that’s true, but this time, I swear, it’ll be my last novel!
I’m superstitious about talking too much about a work in progress. Still, I’ll tell you this: it will be completely different from the suspenseful, internationally plotted cross-over novels between literature and the thriller genre that I’ve published until now. This new work will have a paranormal flavor – not in the “angels and demons” way, it will be much more subtle. One of my characters is an older Belgian writer with Alzheimer’s. He’s been very successful but is now losing his grip on reality. His 26-year-old daughter is on a mission as a journalist in war-torn Syria. His South American wife, a former stewardess, is visiting her dying sister in Chile.
His wife left him on their estate in East-Flanders in the hands of a resident female nurse and a hired hand who looks after his beloved horses. The author mourns deeply for the recent death of his beloved American Stafford Lientje, his faithful dog who died of a brain tumour. Paranoia and delusions set in: he thinks he has died and is following his daughter in the hellish civil war in Syria as a ghost. He knows she will be killed and desperately seeks a way to save her. A ghost-man accompanied by his ghost-dog roams the ruins of Aleppo, the worst destroyed city in Syria, looking for his daughter, seeing death and suffering, talking to his dog…
Of course, there’s much more to be told about the novel, but this is its backbone. Although it’s mainly fictitious, this is one of the most personal novels I’ve ever written. My dearest American Stafford Lientje died a few years ago, and I still mourn for her death every day. It is my feeling of loss that drives this new novel. The loss of a beloved pet can be heart-shattering.
It will be my last novel … if I’m able to bring it to completion. During the past three years, I’ve noticed it’s getting harder to write. Will it come to a race against time and the deterioration of my brain and senses? We’ll see.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I’ve lived a rather peculiar life, and I’m grateful for it. It has allowed me to see the best and the worst in humans.
I’ll never forget the mothers’ bravery in the besieged city of Sarajevo when they queued up daily in front of the rare water distribution points between the ruins. Serbian snipers regularly fired at those rows of patiently waiting women. Still, they needed the water for their families in a city where tap water was cut off for most of the day, along with electricity. I queued up with them once to interview them with the help of my fixer’s translation. Those were some of the most frightening forty-five minutes of my life, and I only lined up once, while they did it almost daily. So where were the macho men, walking around in the streets armed to the teeth, when it came to waiting in these water rows? I didn’t see them; women had the guts and the love to do it.
There are other sights I’ll never forget; they pop up in my head regularly and still shake me to the bone. I see the famished five-year-old child in a hospital tent of Médécins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) in civil-war-ridden Sudan, looking with his huge eyes straight through me. I see the teenage girl in a hospital in Serbia who was shot in the face, tragically disfigured. I see the paralyzed boy of about twelve in a bed in a Palestinian hospital in Gaza. He was shot in the back of the neck, the bullet shattering upper parts of his spine, and very probably would never be able to walk again.
When those and other memories hit me with the feeling that I might fall into a bottomless pit, I walk to our meadows where our four horses, my cherished companions, live their peaceful life, knowing they are loved and taken care of. I walk silently amidst them or groom their coats. They snuggle close and look at me with their beautiful, serene, wise eyes and give me the feeling that they know what’s going on in me and fill me with their powerful, almost magical aura of acceptance and consolation. At those precious moments, I know, despite everything, that I’m blessed.
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