Refugee Love

In 1920 a popular novel was published in Antwerp, Refugeeliefde. Een volksroman uit het leven der Belgische Vluchtelingen in Engeland (‘Refugee love. A romance from the lives of the Belgian Refugees in England’). The author, Paul Van Opstal, used an alias and was in fact Floris Prims (1882-1954), who became the main archivist of the port city of Antwerp in 1925. Prior tot he war he was deeply involved in the development of christian socialism (along with friar Rutten for instance). During the war, he had become one of the most prominent proponents of the Catholic Belgian community in exile, along with Mgr. Dewachter and fellow priests or canons such as Rutten, Michiels, Ingelbeen and Callewaert. Prims had been close to Catholic circles around the figure of Mgr. De Wachter – who was the head of the Belgian Catholic community in exile – and Frans Van Cauwelaert, the mayor of Antwerp. Van Cauwelaert established the first Dutch newspaper in Flanders right before the war, but this appeared only after the war. An important financial backer of that newspaper was Dr. Alfons Van de Perre, who was the main funder of a Dutch newspaper for Belgian refugees, produced, printed and distributed in Britain, the Stem Uit België (‘the voice from Belgium’), a weekly (more or less) that initially appeared in two languages (as in: a mixture of, not in parallel). Floris Prims was its editor-in-chief. The editorial offices of the Stem Uit België -mostly on Russell Square, London – became a hub for finding one another in a strange land (a temporary lodging place even), for financial transactions and for booklets and leaflets alike.

 

FlorisPrims

Floris Prims

 

The above description of a network that found a temporary translation in exile in Britain is the setting in which the tireless Prims managed to write and publish a serial, called Refugeeliefde. Its serial publication is a bit of an enigma as the first real episode, in the issue of 17 January 1917, was chapter five already. The main language of Refugeeliefde was Dutch, in both varieties. The dialogue was mostly mimicking a more regional dialect, whereas the narrative attempted to be more proper Dutch. The first episode contained the sentence “Nurse, somebody is asking for you downstairs” which appeared to be a trick by a Belgian who pretended to be British. The English utterance is part of the overall plot there. The seventh instalment slightly moves away from that device of including an English sentence and Prims slowly moves to code switching at a smaller level: “Chère Hélène, Dommage dat ge gisteren niet hier waart! De bijoux zijn teruggevonden”, “entre paranthèse” and “ineens werd ze gewaar que la fixais”. Latin was used to denote the gravity of a situation, such as the last rites: “Domine, non sum dignus…”. If Prims found his voice by mixing French into the Dutch/Flemish, it as only going to be a matter of time before he would start building dialogue on English snippets. On 16 February 1917 this next level happened: “Moi ici, if you please, moi malade, if you please, tout est rempli. If you please… Doe maar open…”, a first occurrence of both languages of the community in exile and the host community. Despite the war dragging on and Belgian refugees no longer being the heroes they were in 1914, Prims still tied in the English hosts with their ‘hourrah’ feeling when they spotted a Belgian. Whether this perception triggered his next action is a bit uncertain, but he printed a request alongside the episode, seeking inspiration from stories by refugees themselves. The subsequent issue of the Stem Uit België printed the conclusion of the episode. With the next chapter of the serial appearing 23 February, ‘verpleegsters’ turned into ‘nursen’, an amalgamation of the English plural word and the Dutch plural ending. Another English bit of dialogue appeared ‘Next, please’. Peculiarly the story now had a translator running around, but one who never actually showed any work being done as all he relayed to his fellow refugees was printed in Dutch already. An element from daily refugee life for sure, but not fairly presented. Increasingly double code switching was included (‘de tea party par Mrs Dining’) or outright borrowing, either with quotation marks (een nieuwe “bracelet esclave”) or without (‘terug komend van den Registrar’). Latin was presented in conjunction with the main stages of Catholic patrimony (birth, confirmation, marriage, death): ‘Ego conjungo vos in matrimonium’.

 

The episode of 1 March 1917 concluded with an announcement that the “Bracelet Esclave” would become a serial in its own right from the subsequent week. Refugeeliefde itself continued well for another year (1 March 1918), and eventually got published in Belgium in 1920. “Bracelet Esclave” did not start until a fortnight after that, packed with code switching, much more so than its predecessor. Most of it being English. The friction along the linguistic divide that also ran through the Belgian community in exile in Britain (Flemish vs. Walloon) was omitted, instead focus lay with the language of the host community, like Dutch a Germanic language as well.

 

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