Monday, August 20, 2018

An Untouched House - Willem Frederik Hermans

Translated by David Colmer

I saw this mentioned in a couple of places, and ended up buying an E version of it without realising it was a novella. It was a happy discovery because as it stands the book lasts just as long as my stomach for it's violence did. Much more and it would have started to lose its impact but as it is it's disturbing, haunting, and brilliant.

It opens with the narrator, a Dutchman in a mixed troop of partisans somewhere towards the end of the Second World War, waiting with some comrades on a sunken road, desperate for some water. Most of the men don't speak the same languages as each other, or of their commanding officers, so when our narrator finds himself in a recently deserted and particularly elegant house he decides his orders were probably to stay put.

When the Germans turn up soon after he's no longer in uniform so decides to say the house is his - unsure of how long he can maintain the pretence.

After 4 years cut lose from home and its social conventions though shrugging off the war isn't a simple matter, and however much our narrator might want to be left alone to sleep he's still in the middle of a war zone.

A British, and sometimes American, view of the Second World War was part and parcel of my childhood - it was the films that we watched on weekend afternoons (because there was nothing else) the memories of our grandparents and a chunk of the stories they told, staple fare in comics still. You couldn't help but absorb it. Since then I've read countless books and diaries from the period - so I think it's history I'm familiar with.

And I am, right up until I find myself reading something from a French, a German, a Russian, a Dutch, perspective and am disoriented by that different viewpoint. 'An Untouched House' has no heroics or nobility, just ugly, destructive, brutality. Things are broken, people die - horribly and pointlessly - the difference between sides is blurred and it's bleakly honest about the brutalising effect of prolonged warfare. Its also an excellent antidote to misty eyed nostalgia for blitz or Dunkirk spirit, and the other stories the victorious like to tell. I thoroughly recommend it.

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