A Guardian Angel Recalls
An exciting, chilling story about crime and punishment during the May 1940 German invasion of the Netherlands
The central theme in Willem Frederik Hermans’ work is the Second World War. It was the perfect setting for his novels and stories, one that allowed him to express his outlook on life: in wartime the true, self-destructive nature of mankind emerges from beneath the thin veneer of civilization that, during times of peace, we take to be the whole story. In 2021, this classic novel – considered by Hermans to be one of his best – is appearing in English translation for the first time.
The Netherlands, May 1940. Bert Alberegt, a public prosecutor, is speeding to Rotterdam in his black Renault. He has just managed to get his Jewish lover, Sysy, onto a ship full of refugees bound for the United States, but he remains behind. Then, suddenly, he swerves into a little girl on a country road. He didn’t see her; she is killed instantly. Without really thinking about what he’s doing, he hides the body in the bushes. No one else has seen what happened.
This opening to the novel is narrated by his guardian angel, who is unable to protect him from fate (‘He had come into great distress without my being able to help it, without my being able to help him.’). At the same time, the devil is whispering things into his ear. Who should he listen to? Once he arrives at the courthouse, he is called upon to decide the appropriate punishment for a journalist who has insulted one of the country’s allies, Adolf Hitler, in a newspaper article.
The next day, the war breaks out. Alberegt tries to amass the funds to flee to the UK in an attempt to escape the Germans as well as his own sense of guilt. Then he discovers that his brother Rense – a painter whose work has been deemed ‘degenerate’ art by the Nazis – is on a list of German targets: he will be arrested if they find him. Alberegt does everything in his power to help his brother, but Rense refuses to cooperate. All the news that is making the rounds during these first days of the war is false or unreliable – in the end it turns out the Nazis aren’t looking for Rense at all, but by the time this becomes apparent he has already ended his own life.
A Guardian Angel Recalls is a novel about guilt and innocence, about rumours and propaganda. Bert Alberegt is the plaything of history, of the battle between good and evil – an antihero who is one of the unforgettable characters in Hermans’ body of work.