Problemski Hotel

In 2001 the Belgian journalist Dimitri Verhulst was commissioned by a Flemish magazine to write an article and, in order to gather material, he had himself locked up in the asylum-seekers’ centre at Arendonk. His sojourn there clearly gave him more material that he needed for a simple article for he ended up writing a whole book: Problemski Hotel.

I came to read this book as a direct consequence of the recent Brussels bombing. I felt then, and I still feel, that if we allow terrorists to dictate the agenda, they half won the battle. And so I invited you all to take part in a reading challenge – to read a Belgian book.  If we were going to talk about Belgium, I’d rather talk about Belgian literature. Of which, I had to realise, I knew absolutely nothing.

For my part, after a little research and some recommendations from you, I chose to read Problemski Hotel by Dimitri Verhulst.

If I had to rate the book, a thing that I’m generally loath to do, I’d give it maybe three stars out of five. It’s lucidly written, with a touch of black humour and the topic has its own interest. I don’t rate it higher because it reads more like a decent piece of journalism than a novel. It starts off well but then fades a bit, although the link between the beginning and finishing scenes rounds it off neatly: two acts of photography where the main character changes from being a photographer to becoming the subject.

If Verhulst set out to create compassion for asylum-seekers in his book, he failed signally. Of course, it could be just me being insensitive but as it happens, I’m not convinced he was trying to do anything of the kind. Instead, like a good journalist, he presented us with a documentary (if in fictional form), and declined to comment. Nevertheless, the book has its merits: I defy you to read it and not to ask yourself some questions. What disturbed me more than anything was that the book made me possibly more unsympathetic to the plight of the refugees. This, given that I’m an immigrant myself, should give pause for thought.

Here is why.

Whether they fled war and atrocities or – the majority – nothing worse than a dead-end village in a poorer country, the asylum-seekers of Problemski Hotel share one thing: a sense of entitlement to a ‘better life’ that simply beggars belief. For this ‘better life’ the women are willing to prostitute themselves, the men are willing to pay out a fortune and both sexes are willing to risk their lives. The one thing that doesn’t seem to occur them is to… observe the law. To play by the rules. Or to accept anything less than the very best that the world has to offer. It doesn’t occur to them because they feel entitled to a better life in some mythical country (say England) if they could only get there. Not a single one of these characters applied for asylum voluntarily in Belgium: they were all caught en route to somewhere ‘better’.

I don’t know. When I lived in a poorer country, Belgium would have been good enough for me. It seems to be good enough at this very moment for about eleven million Belgians in fact.

Last year we have seen masses of refugees moving across Europe, absolutely convinced that they were entitled to pick and choose their destination. They rejected one EU country after another as they flowed through the borders: Greece and Hungary, countries perfectly safe but manifestly not as prosperous, were summarily dismissed for more palatable destinations like Germany, Sweden, England. At the risk of being controversial, I have to pose the question: When does a man fleeing for his life stop being an asylum-seeker to become instead simply an economic migrant? When does he lose his claim to our compassion and help?

This sense of entitlement, however, is not limited to the asylum-seekers; it’s endemic in the societies in which we all live. It certainly is present in England, and not just among immigrants and people on benefits but the middle-classes as well. Maybe we should just all stop and consider for a moment why people in the world nowadays think they’re simply entitled to something better without having to do anything to help themselves.

I have no quarrel with anybody who wants to better himself. Quite the contrary; I experienced first-hand the difference in living standards arising from a simple relocation. We all just want to be happy in this one life we have. But the world owes us nothing. And the sooner we realise this, the sooner we accept that we have to make the best of the (far too often) raw deal that life gave us, the sooner that we start making an effort instead of expecting others to sort our problems out for us… well, the sooner the world will be a better place to live in.

Europe is not a utopia, not some sort of heavenly paradise. It is still learning to sort out its own problems and its history is bloody and brutal. You don’t even have to go as far back as World War II. Bosnian War, anyone? Communism? The dictatorships of Spain, Portugal and Greece into the 1970s? This was all within our lifetime. Yes, I’d like to think that Europe is making progress but by god, there is still a long way to go! What’s certain is that progress is only made by people who engage; not by those who merely feel entitled.

Problemski Hotel throws up so many questions. Once you start asking them, you can’t seem to stop. Questions about our sense of entitlement is just one of them. The importance of the rule of law, tolerance, compassion, integration… the ongoing brutal conflicts in too many parts of the world. Maybe I was too harsh on the book. Ordinary reading as it is, it does make you think. Perhaps it merits four stars.


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