notes on dutch literature

The Dutch read W.F. Hermans

In Pick of the Week on November 10, 2012 at 2:41 PM

the-darkroom-of-damocles

Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) was an adolescent in Amsterdam during the Second World War, a period that made an indelible impression on him, compounded by his older sister and cousin committing suicide soon after the German invasion in 1940. Hermans often chooses the war as backdrop for his novels, since it is an environment in which malice and misunderstanding, and the pointlessness of our existence can best be brought to the surface.The Darkroom of Damocles is no exception.

The Netherlands Reads is the Dutch version of US campaign One Book, One City run by the Foundation for Joint Publicity for Dutch Literature (CPNB). After previous successes promoting Dutch classics like Two Women by Harry Mulish in 2008 and The Happy Class by Theo Thijssen (2007), this year the Dutch are reading The Darkroom of Damocles (translated by Ina Rilke, Overlook Press).

The Darkroom of Damocles is about the tobacconist Henri Osewoudt, a man a bit too short to fight in the Dutch army during World War II, but who gets involved with Dorbeck, a mysterious figure supposedly involved with the Dutch resistance who looks exactly like Osewoudt. Osewoudt is very much a pawn, doing whatever Dorbeck tells him, such as helping British agents and murdering traitors.

The whole time, it’s clear that Osewoudt is in way over his head, and isn’t completely sure what’s going on. What’s worse—for him personally—is that he’s suspected by both the Germans and the Dutch, a situation that really comes to a head after the war ends, and Dorbeck is nowhere to be found.

The impossibility of deciding what’s “right” from what’s “wrong” in relation to the war, is what really drives this book.

“Yet it would be a mistake to read The Darkroom of Damocles, which was first published in 1958, as a historical account. Rather, the Occupation, with its moral reversals, its laws and shibboleths, its imposed need for disguises, untruths and assumptions of alien identity, provides the perfect setting for Hermans to exercise his disillusioned view of human nature. (…) To read this novel in Ina Rilke’s sensitive, supple English is a literary experience of the rarest kind.” – Paul Binding, Times Literary Supplement

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