A Boy’s War
Early adolescence at a time of war
A Boy’s War has a special place in Bernlef’s substantial work. Previously published as Achterhoedegevecht (‘Rearguard Action’, 1989) Bernlef has since pared this coming of age drama down to its essence. Twelve-year-old Michiel is sent away from Amsterdam by his parents in the last year of the war, to the Tulp family in the village of Driewoude, to fatten up. There in the country the war manifests itself completely differently.
‘At home the war had been so much easier. It was visible behind barbed wire, it wore a uniform, it was discernible from everyday life. Here it often surrounded him with incomprehensible signs.’
Bernlef shows the world purely and solely through a boy’s eyes at the start of adolescence; a fragile perspective that is charged more than ever in wartime. The change from city to country, the forced intimacy with strangers, and living under wartime occupation make a survivor of Michiel. The physical sensations of early adolescence are marvellously evoked by the author: ‘Aunt Merel’s’ fleshy arms, his ‘adoptive sister’ Alie’s hairy genitals, his own chafing ankles, not used to clogs.
Michiel also has his hands full trying to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’. The village doctor shouldn’t be greeted, because he fraternizes with the enemy, the neighbour is a member of the nsb and a rake, and must be spied on; in order to get into his classmates’ good books, he must report things he doesn’t understand himself. Before falling asleep at night he comforts himself with a book from home: Mother Reads and identifies with Hagar and Ishmael, who, like himself, were betrayed by their loved ones and sent into the wilderness.
By the time Michiel can go back to Amsterdam, he has discovered that not everything is what it seems. The girl with the gorgeous hair is a Kraut whore. He has learned that principles come at a price and that honesty is relative. At the same time, all that he has experienced happened in such a closed world and period that he feels nothing has happened at all. This paradox, of ‘all’ and ‘nothing’, is beautifully brought to life in this novella.