Translated from Dutch by Richard Hujing
One of the most chilling things I have ever seen is the bottle dungeon at St Andrew’s Castle in Fife. Impossible to capture in a photo without a very wide-angled lens (as you can see on the right), but imagine this. There is a hole in the ground with a 30-ft fall to the rocky bottom. It is pitch black and you are about to be thrown into it, knowing that even if you survive your inevitable injuries, you will never come out alive because there will be no food or water provision. Your fate is to die in pain of hunger and thirst surrounded by the dead and dying who have preceded you.
I had nightmarish visions about what that must be like, and so, when I came to Bel Campo’s story in the recently released Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, I was amazed to find those nightmares on paper.
The story begins as the unnamed warrior is cast into the dark pit, not knowing what awaits him there. Man-eating animals perhaps? As his eyes accustom to the gloom, he discovers he is in a human pit full of vanquished peoples, in various states of decay. Noone is moving, noone is speaking. Each man is resignedly undergoing the decline of the body.
What is there left to do, except to cling to life for as long as possible, as an act of independence against the conquering nation? To reminisce on the sweetness of life, before it was darkened by war and ethnic cleansing.
That was the stuff of my nightmares but Bel Campo had even more horrific things in store. For our prisoner’s enemies are not content with allowing their prisoners a dignified death. Deeper humiliations await. They wish to further divide and conquer, to reduce their prisoners to the level of animals, to strip them of all vestiges of humanity. This they do by staging what I can only describe as a diabolical banquet. No further details here, but I was reminded of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights as I read ever more wide-eyed. The temptations of the flesh leading only to death and damnation for both conquerors and conquered ….
… and yet, in the midst of this hell, the unnamed protagonist manages to find a kind of grace in the form of true love. What a twist!
Belcampo’s story is as vivid and visual as a painting, and it is a shame that this is the only story of his that I can find in English. An admirer of E T A Hoffman, this nom-de-plume is taken from one of Hoffmann’s characters, which suggests that there is is a fantastically gothic oeuvre just waiting to be discovered by Hoffmann’s many English-reading fans. If only someone would translate it.