A razor-sharp novella about the hubris of youth, the yearning for adventure and the frightening reality of war
In Fall, Bomb Gerrit Kouwenaar, in prose as precise as it is witty, draws the reader into the mind of a young man whose life is turned upside down by the Second World War. His story starts like a boy’s adventure novel but ends in loss and loneliness. Along with contemporaries like Willem Frederik Hermans, Kouwenaar brought the period of the German occupation of the Netherlands to life with searing honesty; his work drew comparisons to Sartre and Gide.
When Karel Ruis learns on the morning of May 10th, 1940 that Hitler’s troops have invaded the Netherlands, he thinks to himself ‘not without satisfaction’ that at last something is happening – anything is better than his parents’ stagnant, bourgeois existence. It’s the beginning of an affecting story in which a lifetime’s worth of events is compressed into just a few days.
Karel narrowly escapes an air raid, delivers a letter to his uncle’s Jewish mistress and grows infatuated with her daughter. The two women are about to flee the country and he dreams of going with them. To him their attempt at survival is a thrilling adventure. To the great disappointment of the lovestruck young man, it turns out that mother and daughter didn’t for a moment consider asking him to come along. At the end of the story, Karel watches his hometown being set ablaze after another German air raid.
It’s the powerful, unsparing ending to a novel in which Kouwenaar brilliantly captures the naive desires of his young protagonist and shows what happens when a seventeen-year-old is thrust into cruel maturity in the span of a few days. Later on Kouwenaar, who was himself interned for six months during the German occupation, described the war as ‘Europe’s education. A five-year programme, as we know.’ Fall, Bomb is the encapsulation of that life-changing ‘programme’ in 120 pages, with the student being grabbed by the scruff of his neck in the first hour of class and not having a moment’s peace from then on.