Sunday, September 28, 2008

Le Plat Pays

Weide in de lente - Veldweg: Albijn Van den Abeele

Waiting in for a carpet to be delivered a few Saturdays ago I caught a fascinating radio programme, Brel et Moi, featuring the Belgian singer/songwriter, Jacques Brel and presented and written by Alastair Campbell (yes, that Alastair Campbell). Such a short life. A serial womaniser in Paris, a demanding paterfamilias in Brussels. Self centred and driven but loved by those he worked with and, heavens, what a talent.

Years ago the Brel song that seduced me was Le Plat Pays (the Flat Land), a love song to his native Flanders. A poem in its own right, lyrical and elegaic. I was born and spent my childhood in a similarly flat land of earth, water and wide skies on the other side of the North Sea and the song stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it. It still does.

Maybe only a Belgian could pull it off. Using each of the four winds Brel celebrates the different moods and seasons of this modest and - nowadays at least - peaceful stretch of land. He opens himself to embrace the rain and cold and the tedium and monotony, as well as warmth and sunlight. Winter. Summer. Everything in between.

The lyrics are below. I'm not attempting a translation. There are a few versions floating around on the web but they don't really reach the level of the original. According to one contributor to the programme there is a view that Brel's work is pretty much untranslatable and it's true that those songs that have made it into English haven't necessarily benefitted. One of the other contributors, Mel Smith, is a Brel devotee who neither reads nor understands French: the ferocious intensity, the sweat and saliva (literally) of Brel's performances were enough to captivate him.

Cue for a video of a mesmerising live performance of Le Plat Pays. Enough of my words. Listen.

Avec la mer du Nord pour dernier terrain vague
Et des vagues de dunes pour arrêter les vagues
Et de vagues rochers que les marées dépassent
Et qui ont à jamais le cœur à marée basse
Avec infiniment de brumes à venir
Avec le vent de l'ouest écoutez-le tenir
Le plat pays qui est le mien

Avec des cathédrales pour uniques montagnes
Et de noirs clochers comme mâts de cocagne
Où des diables en pierre décrochent les nuages
Avec le fil des jours pour unique voyage
Et des chemins de pluie pour unique bonsoir
Avec le vent de l
'est écoutez-le vouloir
Le plat pays qui est le mien

Avec un ciel si bas qu'un canal s'est perdu
Avec un ciel si bas qu'il fait l'humilité
Avec un ciel si gris qu'un canal s'est pendu
Avec un ciel si gris qu'il faut lui pardonner
Avec le vent du nord qui vient s'écarteler
Avec le vent du nord écoutez-le craquer
Le plat pays qui est le mien

Avec de l'Italie qui descendrait l'Escaut
Avec Frida la Blonde quand elle devient Margot
Quand les fils de novembre nous reviennent en mai
Quand la plaine est fumante et tremble sous juillet
Quand le vent est au rire quand le vent est au blé
Quand le vent est au sud écoutez-le chanter
Le plat pays qui est le mien.

Jacques Brel

More insight into the inspiration for the song? There's a set of masterly, evocative photographs of Le Plat Pays here, just a click away.

I keep returning to them.


Sky said...

the link to the photographs is such a gift - THANK YOU. i was mesmerized as i viewed them. i have not been drawn so much to flatlands, but here i saw so much that i have missed. i enjoyed each photograph immensely and will share these with others.

i wish my french was not so rusty. in 40+ years i have lost the little vocabulary i once knew. :(

mm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mm said...

Sky: I am really pleased that you like the photos as much as I do. Thank you for the feedback.

herhimnbryn said...

Strange, have just checked back on comment I left on last post and then to this one and the 'comments' click appeared!

mm said...

HHB: Weird. Glad the problem seems to be resolved ;-)