Hugo Claus’s “Desire”


 Desire by Hugo Claus; translated by Stacey Knecht


Hugo Claus, who is one of Belgium’s most acclaimed modern-day novelists, first published is novel, Desire, in 1978.  However, the book was not available in English translation until 1997. It is set in the 1970s, and, even though the characters and story could easily have been set in another decade, it feels somewhat dated. A large part of the action in the first part of the novel takes place at the Unicorn, a Belgian watering-hole where gambling is the hobby du jour and where those who are turned away are few and far between. As one of the characters says, early on, “You’ve got to be a real bastard for us to turn away from our tables.” There are two major characters in the book, the slow-witted, 250-pound Jake, and the brooding and moody Michel. Minor characters stud the book like small stars over an expanse of sky, flickering out as chapters end and new chapters begin. Among them are Marianne, a 17-year-old Brigitte Bardot look-alike, Felix the Cat, Frans the Dutchman, the gay racecar driver, Markie, and Verbist the Schoolmaster.

The theme of the book isn’t instantly clear. It seems to simply be a story about two buddies taking a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada. There are strip clubs and cheap motels and a crazy black woman on a bus in a white pantsuit,  and songster Jerry Lee Lewis even pops in for a bit at a church service they attend presided over by a midget named Amos. But on a second reading, at least part of what Claus is trying to convey becomes apparent.  Desire is at the crux of the story, just as the title suggests. Jake and Michel desire an adventure, something beyond their day-to-day existence at the Unicorn and in their homes. Jake wants to escape from his wife, Dina, with whom he continually fights, and his daughter, Didi, who became brain damaged after a mysterious breakdown eight years earlier when she was 16-years-old. Michel wishes to get away from his mother, who is dying of cancer. The Unicorn is a gathering place where they have friends, but they both feel a sense of discontentment, of disillusionment towards life. Like many of us who think that a brand-new house or a spiffy sports car or another vacation will bring us that muched-long-for happiness, a trip to Las Vegas is what Jake and Michel think will change their destinies. What they discover instead is how frustrating they find each other, and empty and meaningless much of life really is.

In an interior monologue, Jake confesses:

 I’d have plenty of time if I wasn’t always chasing after  him (Michel),  after that half-crazed greyhound that races from one gaming table to the next. . .that’s how he plays with people, too, pulling their strings in the darkness to see what’ll come gushing out of those quivering marionettes. . .

Jake is also the one who speaks of desire in his letters to his wife, letters which are full of emotions he has never been able to express to her in person. In one, he writes:

I’ve been thinking about Desire, Dina. Because we don’t have Much More than that, we poor, weak Humans [sic.]. But it’s the only thing we do have that’s really Ours, Nothing to do with our Situation or Politics and all the Big Shoots [sic.] we see on TV. . .As long as it’s True and Real, We can’t be harmed. All the rest are Sick down to their bones. I’m often Sick too like that but that comes, Dina dear, from Warmth and from Desire.

On their way to Las Vegas, Jake and Michel go through London, England, where Michel looks around for porno films to see, and Los Angeles, California, where they spend most of their time in a hotel room, drinking. Las Vegas may be their ultimate destination, but they don’t find a great deal to entertain them beneath its surface allure when they finally arrive. Rather, they fritter their time away on gambling dens and more porno flicks. Michel observes, somewhat cynically:

Throughout my life I’ll have seen everything with remote control, one touch of the button and another channel flops onto my lens, with different colors, different scenery, stranger apparitions.

If you’re looking for an action-packed book, Desire will not satisfy your desires. It is a book about the complicated love-hate relationship between the two men and their relationship to the world surrounding themselves.  Yet they go through a lot of meaningless adventures on the journey to self-discovery. Personally, I don’t think Claus’s strong point is an insight into human nature. What could have made the novel more powerful would have  been if Claus had given us two characters with whom we were able to sympathize more strongly. As it is, the reader is forced to delve too deeply into the text, trying to force meanings out of words and incidents that may or may not be there. It’s impossible for me, even after two readings, to know whether this book offers more or less than it seems to. And the bizarre character of Rickabone, which could have added more depth to the plot, only serves to confuse and, at times, annoy. He is a phantom who bounces in at the most unexpected moments, and Claus seems to use him as a medium through which to offer a few sagacious insights, though really he is an unneccessary element.

One of the ways in which Claus made this text more meaningful is that he showed both characters as being permanently changed by their trip. Of the two, Jake’s life is altered the most. Although he never returns to the Unicorn after the trip to Vegas, a random act of violence and a revelation about his mentally challenged daughter set his world spinning. But somehow, even these dramatic events are not enough to make the book memorable. There have been both films (e.g., “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and  “Thelma and Louise”) and books (e.g., Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet) about adventurous duos that have been a great deal more interesting and entertaining. Claus’s writing is clean, spare, and to-the-point, and he does demonstrate a wry sense of humor. Yet, over 201 pages, he offers few scenes that another author of his reputed calibre couldn’t have written better. The story works on certain levels, but parts of the book seem devoid of any real point. And quite frankly, considering Claus’s stellar reputation, this reader expected more.