Book chapter: ‘A dog of Flanders’ as patchwork —  2018

Translated from‘A dog of Flanders’ als patchwork
Hoofdstuk uit 'Dog of Flanders' een nooit geziene kijk op Vlaanderen
SamenstellersAn van. Dienderen & Didier Volckaert
Uitgegeven door Lannoo, 2008

‘A dog of Flanders’ as patchwork

Every day several Japanese tourists visit the cathedral of Antwerp. In front of Rubens’ painting The descent from the cross they start to cry. Why? Few people in Flanders know that they are moved because of a tiny book written by Louise de La Ramée or Ouida in 1872. In its final scene the two main characters, Nello and Patrasche, die in each other’s arms in front of the Rubens’ painting.

The novella is titled A dog of Flanders and is the most published book about Flanders.It only counts about sixty pages, but since its first publication it has created an impressive stream of images, prints, and films about Flanders. There are five Hollywood films. The oldest dates from 1914; the most recent from 1999. In Japan the story was introduced already in 1908. It is compulsory school literature and the characters belong to the collective memory. This is due in part to an incredibly popular animation series from 1975. This series attracted 30 million viewers every night and has since been re-broadcasted annually. The number of printed copies of the book surpasses the 100 million worldwide.

This novella about Flanders has created several images of this region. These images are shared by millions of people. As a result, you can safely state that the novella has become the largest cultural export product of Flanders. These images of Flanders travel through the world, are adapted to local tastes and fascinations, but are without any appreciation by the people of Flanders. In Flanders the novella is (almost) totally unknown! Ouida is not compulsory literature in Flanders (and Belgium). Moreover, the Flemish people are not at all aware of the phenomenal trans-Atlantic trajectory that the novella has created. It is from the contrast between this massive international imagination and the Flemish unawareness that my research has started. Together with Didier Volckaert I created a documentary, several expositions, a book, and an educational project. There you can read a short summary of the project.

In this text I explore in which way images of Flanders are intertwined with socio-cultural contexts, and with the specific perspective of artists. Influenced by globalization, the network society and new communication technologies, people and their community undergo drastic transformations in a very short time. Images play a pertinent role in these transformations. Yet images are often characterized by biases. Usually the question about the bias of images is raised based on how the ‘other’ is represented: how do ‘we’ look at the ‘other’? But the short story A Dog of Flanders offers the opportunity to turn this question around: how do the others look at ‘us’? How is Flanders presented by the British writer, the American film adaptations and the Japanese animation series? This reversal of looks, offers surprising perspectives. It allows us to look at ‘ourselves’ through the eyes of the others.

The way in which the Japanese public adopted the British story confirms the power of imaginationwhen it comes to dealing with the image of the ‘other’. Although the British story creates a rather negative portrait of Flanders, it forms a fascinating bridge between cultures. The novella started a cross-cultural process, in which images from films and books inspire cultural exchange. I even go as far as to say that although Ouida wanted to critique Flanders, she nonetheless is the motor of an impressive patchwork in which different communities and their imaginations are intertwined with her story of Flanders.

These images are all inspired by Ouida’s impressive talent to mix facts and fiction. She intertwined traces with fabrications of her own so as to give the reader the illusion that the story had actually happened. This artistic storytelling process has been the motor of a curious process in which adaptations of the story have been appropriated or adopted by different cultural groups. The interesting thing about this is that these adaptations also have identity as their subject. Cultural philosophers confirm that identity is not created outside, but within representation, and thus, among other things, in cinema. A film is not a mirror that reflects what already exists, but forms a new creation. A dog of Flanders shows how cultural attitudes and values ​​are interwoven in representations. In what follows I will explore how the story travels through different communities, how artists create and shift contexts, and thus how identity of cultural groups is constructed and imagined.

First of all, there are the actual circumstances; this is the first level of identity construction. Nello and Patrasche did not exist, but the Antwerp Cathedral, the Scheldt, the dog carts and Rubens’s paintings did. The poverty of the 19th century can also be verified.

The second level of identity is situated at the level of narratives or representations,which starts with Ouida: she creates a narrative about Flanders through her novella. The Flemish use of the dog cart was probably unbearable for a Brit, especially for Ouida. She was a great dog lover, owning more than 12 dogs at a time. The way in which Nello is misunderstood as an artist is also a central issue for Ouida. Ouida’s story describes a clear personal position on Flanders that is also shared by a broader group of the English community, according to marysa De Moor and Patrick Vanleerne. The Flemish people that Ouida describes are not very attractive. In Ouida’s story, the Flemish are farmers, barbaric, stingy and essentially cowardly and traditionalistic. This is how she imagines Flanders.

The cinematic adaptations also create their narratives about Flanders. These hybrid films, like Ouida’s book, often have nothing to do with Flanders from 1872, let alone with Flanders today. Nevertheless, these fictional landscapes and the characters they populate have as much right to exist as the real Flanders of then and now. These imaginary constructions, the one more sophisticated and complex than the other, provide an insight into both the cultural background of the filmmakers and the way in which they imagine Flanders.

The formula used throughout the five Hollywood filmsclearly propagates American family values. In this imaginary image of Flanders we recognize aspects that are still recognizable in many American Hollywood films. The American Nello embodies the American dream. Each of the five Hollywood films therefore inevitably has a happy ending. In the last adaptation Nello even find his lost dad.

In the Japanese films by contrast we recognize totally different values. Akira Takahashi confirms that the tragic end of Nello and Patrasche fits in a pattern of numerous Japanese films, which always end dramatically. Japanese parents find it important that children learn empathy for the tragedy of others. Nello and Patrasche are recognized as Japanese heroes, because they meet the values ​​that are regarded as central qualities in Japanese traditional culture: noble failure that, together with a sincere attitude (makoto) leads to dramatic self-sacrifice. Perhaps these values ​​are less prominent in present-day Japan, as some Japanese interlocutors indicated. Other themes that are included in the story, such as animal love and the love for nature, are also emphasized in the Japanese anime. So there is clearly a cultural fit between the novella and some values which people in Japan embrace, as De Gruyter and Van Broeck suggest.

Through these narratives, labels have been created and that could be called the third level of identity. For the Japanese audience, the label of A dog of Flanders is based on the animation series made in 1975. In it, the protagonists get a ‘character design’ that fits closely with the Japanese interpretation of the story, as Inoue confirmed. In stark contrast, Flanders uses a completely different label for the story based on the drawings for the Suske en Wiske story # 201 The threatening thing. The pair is depicted as miserable, shabby and somewhat pathetic. The new statue (2017) that is constructed in front of the Cathedral is similarly out of synch with the Japanese imagination. It presents a naïve image of a boy and a dog that are asleep under a blanket of stones.

These labels and narratives based on the short story then gave rise to various practices, a fourth aspect of identity. Flemish people respond according to their cultural background, just as the Japanese do according to their cultural sensitivity. These are authentic practices, but the relationship with Flanders is not factual or ‘real’. This relationship, just like the cinematic adaptations, is situated at the level of imagination, while the feelings and actions of those involved are real. Japanese tourists are looking for Nello and Patrasche in the Antwerp region, but are getting disappointed there. Not only because of the other image that Flemish people push forward, but often also because of the unfamiliarity of the story. The identity of Nello and Patrasche that they seek does not exist in Flanders. Van Broeck and De Gruyter describe how different dynamics have developed in Hoboken and Antwerp over the years to give the story a place. The authors make it clear that neither Hoboken nor Antwerp manages to answer the Japanese’s question or to create a meaningful label or interpretation for the Flemish.

This is the question that implicitly hints throughout this research: why does Flanders not like Nello and Patrasche? Why does the Flemish people not pay attention to this impressive trans-Atlantic route? And what does this ignorance about Nello and Patrasche and their international route say about Flanders?

The figures on Japanese tourism in the Antwerp region show that in 2007 there was a noticeable decline. This can largely be explained by the splitting of the former Belgian Tourist Office into a Flemish and a Walloon office. This division is characteristic. In the last 20 years, Flanders profiles itself more and more as an independent entity. A separate tourist office in Tokyo can therefore be seen as the label with which Flanders wants to be recognized. The recent profiling of Flanders is one of the reasons why the short story does not catch on in Antwerp. Antwerp policy makers want to present Antwerp as a dynamic (fashion) city. The story about the dog of Flanders is placed in a poor, pre-industrial past, which the policy makers do not want to be reminded of. Moreover, in the eyes of the Flemish policy makers, the story is about a failed boy. Flanders wants to carefully select which image or label best fits that new image. Finally, the far-reaching sentimentality of the story is not very popular in Flanders. There is clearly no cultural fit with the story.

But how is it that the transatlantic impact is unknown to date?That Flanders does not realize which value this trajectory can offer? In that respect, Ouida positioned all her characters, poor and rich, to live in a village. This village mentality is described by Herman Van Goethem, when he depicts the mentality of the Antwerp people in 1870. But the unfamiliarity with the impressive trajectory of the novella might confirm that there are still traces of this village mentality in today’s Flanders. Nello and Patrasche are not considered to be Flemish. The Japanese images are also not adopted in Flanders for the same reason.

Yet this so-called ‘other’ cultural view not only offers the possibility of introspection, but can also be the beginning of an intercultural dialogue. We have also discovered that other countries value the story: films pop up in Poland, Russia, Turkey, Mexico, and so on. There is a patchwork worldwide that consists of several pieces of images on Flanders. The only thing that Flemish policy makers have to do is to intertwine these different pieces together, by embracing these images as ‘ours’ too. In this way, Flanders can use this potential for an intercultural and international dialogue. Despite the criticism of Ouida, she has to be recognized – even in spite of her own character – as someone who knows how to connect communities. The patchwork of images about Flanders that are formed worldwide by fans of the story is a surpassing proof of this.