The Darkroom of Damocles
by WF Hermans, translated by Ina Rilke
Harvill Secker, 400pp, 17.99
by WF Hermans, translated by Ina Rilke
Harvill Secker, 256pp, 18.99
SOMETHING WENT WRONG between the world and WF Hermans and, to be honest, it was mostly Hermans's fault. He was a prickly, impossible, fussing kind of man, never happy with translations of his books, forever suspecting publishers of hoarding copies out of spite; a proper author, in other words. He couldn't stand the thought of failing outside his native Holland, some people say, because it would make all his Dutch enemies so happy.
But now that he's dead his books are finally appearing in English and here's the surprise: the world really needs WF Hermans. Milan Kundera understands the way he's literal and fantastic all at once, how he gets to the extraordinary by way of flatlands and dry prose, not self-indulgence. John le Carr was an early fan of his brilliance, as bright when writing farce as writing a thriller.
For the man is bleak, hilarious, angry, ruthless and plain. He's as alarming as a snake in the breadbin. He's also hugely entertaining, which, to be frank, may not be your first idea of a Dutch postwar classic; we've suffered a lot of philosophical interludes and foggy autobiography out of Holland. But The Darkroom of Damocles is a brilliantly worked wartime thriller, and exceptionally disturbing; Beyond Sleep is a ruthless farce, very funny and very dark. Nothing here is predictable; you take a risk reading Hermans.
The Darkroom of Damocles is set when the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, with all the trappings of a Resistance saga; Angus Wilson called it "one of the best novels about the Second World War", which it is, but it's much more. It's a book about how we make sense of experience and the world or, rather, how a man called Henri Osewoudt fails to do just that.
Henri is a tiny freak, "a toad reared upright", a man who can't believe he would ever be a hero; and at all the wrong moments people just have to look at him to agree. We meet him as a boy, the day his mother is arrested for the murder of his father - something told her to do it, something she fears but nobody can see - and he's bundled off to Amsterdam to live with his feather merchant uncle, and the plain, practical cousin, seven years older, who promptly takes the boy to bed and eventually marries him.
Events - like murder and marriage - are always bullying him, and war is the greatest event of them all.
When the Germans land in Holland, an officer in the Dutch army calls on Henri's tobacco shop, asks him to develop some film and admits he has just had some German plainclothes infiltrators shot. It isn't his stories, even the orders that he'll later give, which convince Henri to obey him: this officer, Dorbeck, is dark where Henri is blond, deep-voiced where Henri talks like a castrato, later he'll have a beard when Henri can't grow one, but otherwise the men are print and negative of each other. They're entirely different and virtually identical.
Dorbeck is lightning in Henri's mind. Like any good Dutchman he knows his duty to oppose the Germans; but only this elusive, puzzling doppelganger tells him how. Someone tells him to do things, someone he fears but whom nobody else can see.
Everything is ambiguous in this story, but everything is also solid, exact and precise: the trams, the addresses, the need for hair dye or paper money, the snap of a neck or the weight of a gun. Everything adds up: the question is, to what?
Henri helps people who say they're Allied agents, but he doesn't know. He's sent off to kill strangers because they're said to be traitors, but he has no proof except maybe the Nazi colours of the paint on their houses. He does these jobs quite impersonally, but at the same time he blunders about causing ruin for people he loves. Only later does he start to have doubts about the details that don't quite fit, the questions he ought to have asked.
When he falls into Gestapo hands, his frailty, his girl's face, start to unravel even his sexuality. He has left behind a half-Jewish girlfriend he passionately loves, only to find his interrogator fancies him and he has to make an escape disguised as a nursing sister. In drag, he's fancied by a startled Luftwaffe pilot who always used to like men. A doctor tries to reassure him that it's common for someone under stress to think she's a boy. He can't keep love and gender straight.
There isn't a wasted word or scene, you turn the pages furiously, and all this time a sense of true horror is creeping up on you. Hermans's dry, exact prose - brilliantly translated by Ina Rilke - makes us look through an ordinary window at an entirely extraordinary world. What starts as a thriller ends up as a metaphysical shock that will bring you to tears.
The Americans come, the Netherlands is liberated, Henri expects to be a hero; but instead he looks like a spy to the new powers, someone whose bad luck has to be deliberate, who was being protected, not persecuted, in the Gestapo prisons, who can't produce his spymaster, Dorbeck. Beyond the rollercoaster element, there is a grown-up meditation here on the mad logic and the precise details of war, how acts which made such sense when the guns were still firing can come to sound, after the armistice, very much like murder or even treason.
For Hermans is interested in what it would mean to have a perfectly private view of the world that nobody else can quite share, in how that would shape the world's moral judgment. Those ideas don't stick up through the story to trip the reader, they're its motor and its energy; Hermans reads Wittgenstein, but you needn't.
Beyond Sleep has the same ferocious energy, the same disconcertingly plain prose, but it's a farce. A hopeless geology student, obliged to be a scientist because his Dad fell off a cliff in pursuit of science, is packed off to Norway by his professor to prove a daft theory about meteors. He needs aerial photos which nobody gives him; instead, rival professors show him suburban Oslo, at length.
He goes north to meet up with colleagues, and his saga begins: one full of wet socks and biting flies and a diet of crackers, and sleepless nights because it never gets dark. In this landscape of tiny trees and humming reindeer, one finds the Hermans mixture of the prosaic and the bizarre. His colleagues leave him, his compass goes wrong by 90 degrees, he's alone in a wilderness trying to think his way back to safety. He's at risk of losing the life that usually makes him so angry.
The farce is ruthless - one man dies - and its extremes depend on a grounding of exact fact (Hermans was a physical geographer himself, before he lost his temper with universities). It also conceals a nice philosophic joke, since Wittgenstein himself used to go into the northern wilds of Norway to ponder fundamental questions.
But you can read the book and simply, painfully laugh, as you can read The Darkroom of Damocles simply as a mesmerising thriller.
Afterwards, though, you'll be surprised by what grows in your mind.