Published in Dutch 1958. Translation 2007 Ina Rilke.
I don’t often go to book stores these days. Far too many temptations. But the other week I had some time to kill in Glasgow’s Sauciehall Street, where there is only one place to go. Waterstones. Wandering through the fiction section, I resisted the 3 for 2 tables (I haven’t read any of the last batch ….) and made my way over to the Foreign Fiction table where I saw this ….
30 years ago during my German/Dutch studies this was my favourite Dutch novel. I couldn’t believe it. As my Dutch is no longer up to rereading the original, I had to have it, there and then, and at £17.99 it was more expensive than any 3 for 2 combination I could have chosen. Such is life.
However, it is worth every penny.
The legend of Damocles is well-known. Hermans applies it in the time of the Nazi occupation of Holland. The main character, Ousewoudt, is small (rejected for military service because he is 0. 5 centimeter too short) fair, with no beard and a high-pitched voice. He has no ambition and ends up married to his ugly cousin, Ria. They run a tobacconist’s shop and look after Ousewoudt’s mother, who in a fit of insanity, killed her husband and Ousewoudt’s father when the lad was 12. One day, a Dutch soldier, Dorbeck, comes into the shop. The same size as Ousewoudt: he is his photographic negative: dark, deep-voiced and heroic. The 0.5 centimeter no barrier to military service in his case. He leaves some film for Ousewoudt to develop and thus is Ousewoudt enlisted into the Dutch resistance. From there, things become increasingly dangerous and difficult. Yet Ousewoudt responds willingly to any instruction Dorbeck sends him and accomplishes his missions with increasing ruthlessness.
Ousewoudt’s hero-worship of Dorbeck is akin to Damocles’s adulation of Dionysius.
When I first saw him I thought: this is the sort of man I ought to have been. It’s a bit difficult to put into words, but think of the goods being produced in factories; now and then a substandard article gets made, so they make another one and throw away the reject . . .
“Only they didn’t throw me away. I continued to exist, reject though I was. I didn’t realise I was the reject until I met Dorbeck. Then I knew. That’s when I knew he was the successful specimen, that compared to him I had no reason to exist, and the only way I could accept that was to do exactly as he said. I did everything he told me to do, which was quite a lot sometimes . . . quite a lot . . .
Eventually he is captured and interrogated by the Gestapo. He escapes but only to lead them to his fellow conspirators. Recaptured he spends 9 months in prison but once again escapes, this time to the liberated areas. However, he is immediately imprisoned by the Dutch and, it is during this imprisonment that he realises his precarious position. For Dorbeck has disappeared and everyone that Ousewoudt has had dealings with is dead. Ousewoudt sticks to the story that the reader is familiar with – the thriller of the first 2/3 of the novel. Yet, the Dutch and the British have details to add which puts an entirely different spin on things. For Dorbeck appears to have been a double agent, maybe even a triple agent. Has Ousewoudt been unwittingly working for the wrong side? Or, is Dorbeck, simply a figment of Ousewoudt’s imagination? Insanity runs in his family and there is no doubt that Ousewoudt’s childhood experiences were sufficient to render him psychologically unstable. But was it enough to turn him into a delusional psychopath?
Hermans, one of the top three post-war Dutch authors, weaves his tale with consumate skill. The action is thrilling, the detail grounded and real, the prose (and the exceptional translation) deceptively simple and fluid. Yet sometimes events don’t quite join and there is a pervasive sense that this really is not happening. Or if it is, Ousewoudt maybe isn’t telling us the entire truth. It’s hard to nail the inaccuracies. It’s not quite true that everyone is dead. Yet neither his Uncle Bart nor his ex-lover defend him from the accusations of treachery and treason when given the opportunity. Why would that be? And where is Dorbeck?
The action is sometimes bizarre, politically cynical and Ousewoudt’s situation becomes increasingly Kafkaesque. There are many solutions to the riddle of Dorbeck. I know the explanation I have opted for – on this reading at least. I’m pretty sure though that I could well decide differently next time round.