In The Mist Of The Spirit Realm
Classic war novella confirms Hermans’ mastery
Willem Frederik Hermans generally makes no attempt to make a secret of his opinions. On the subject of the diary as a literary form, he is on record as describing it as insipid realism, a cheap way to produce a text: “Everything can be coincidental, nothing has to be rounded off.?
Hermans’ new book is written as a diary. Which is not to say that the author wanted to see if this cheap way of producing a text would suit him for a change. Even though the references to dates and the information given on the back cover arouse the impression that the book is an authentic manuscript, the novella’s meticulous construction betrays the touch of the master. Nonetheless, he has done his best to give the diary a slightly dilapidated appearance and has made sure that the young student whose report we are reading uses the occasional clumsy expression. But Karel R., the diary’s author, is very recognizable as a Hermans character. Therefore, it is not surprising that the fate lying in wait for him is no happy one. Still, it is once more astounding how Hermans succeeds in presenting as an inevitability the climax in which his (anti)hero is left with nothing but hopelessness in a universe in which malice and misunderstanding have sealed an unfathomable pact.
The novella is set in the Amsterdam of 1944. Karel R. is a twenty year old student who has gone underground because of illegal activities which he has carried out with his friends. Some have been captured, others are, like him, in hiding. Karel pursues the telegraphist Madelon so that he and his friend Michiel can use her to send and receive Morse code on the secret transmitter Michiel has constructed. But a real romance blossoms between Madelon (who has already been engaged to the notary’s son Tjeu for several years) and Karel. And before he has let her in on his original intentions Karel witnesses his friend Michiel being picked up by the Germans after an identity check in a night-club. He will never see him again. In this way Hermans cuts short time and again the hope that seizes his characters. Nobody is trustworthy. Karel’s parents meet their death because the train in which they are sitting is fired on by the English! When Karel tells his now ‘available’ girlfriend that they could have a child together it turns out that she is infertile. And in the end he himself is too weak to reach the hospital which he can see from the window of his last hiding place. In Hermans’ books life always has something of a treacherous underworld. This vision is clearly expressed in those novels and stories set in times of upheaval (such as during the war). This novella disguised as a diary proves that the writer is a formidable and expert craftsman.