Milan Kundera

Dark Poetry and Ambiguity

14 February 2007

History as it is recorded on the collective memory bears little resemblance to what actual people lived through. Without realising, people eventually come to be fashion their memories on what is said in the present. Then, one day, a novelist (a genuine novelist) rediscovers the concrete reality of a historical period we believed we knew, and everything seems different. There is always something shocking about such discrepancies. This is why the great novels which take place during the last European war (and the days which followed) were, initially, poorly received. I am thinking of Malaparte’s La pelle [1]. Or indeed Tworki by Marek Bienczyk, about which I wrote in these pages (DeNoĆ«l, 2006). And now The Darkroom of Damocles [2], by Willem Frederik Hermans.

I know - you have never heard of it. In fact I would still know nothing of its existence had not a Dutch friend talked to me about this great unknown novel, and told me it had been published by Gallimard in Spring 2006. How was it that I had never heard of it ? The answer is simple: the book elicited not a mention, not a word, not a single line in the French press.

I immerse myself in the book, intimidated at first by its length, astonished afterwards to find I have read it at a single sitting. Because the book is thriller, an inexorable succession of events in which the suspense never falters. The events (which takes place during the war and in the year that followed) are described in a style that is terse and exact, detailed but fast-paced; the events are horrifyingly real and yet at the very limit of the credible. I was captivated by the style of this novel, which shows a great love of the real and at the same time is fascinated by what is improbable and the strange. Is this style informed by the very nature of war, which teems with the unexpected and the strange, or is it a deliberate attempt to go beyond the ordinary, to touch, to use a word dear to the surrealists, the marvellous (‘lo real maravilloso’ as Alejo Carpentier would have said)?

This coincidence of the real and the fantastical (in which the improbable is never impossible, the real is never ordinary) grounded in the central character, Osewoudt, a young man ‘born two months premature’ whose ‘mother let drop into the chamber pot as she was evacuating her bowels’. Small and permanently prepubescent, rejected for military service for being half a centimetre too short, he regularly goes to a judo club and refuses to give on a manly life. In the first days of the German occupation, he meets Dorbeck, another young man who looks like his doppelganger, but for the fact that he is flawless, perfect (‘You look like him the way a botched pudding looks like a perfect perfect’as Osewoudt’s very ugly wife informs him ) In thrall to his double, Osewoudt allows himself to be recruited into the Resistance. Faithfully, he carries out the orders which he receives by telephone, by post, by mysterious messengers or, very rarely, from Dorbeck himself during their brief meetings.

And so the point of view is established: the action of the novel is seen through the eyes of a man who cannot grasp the logic nor the reasons for his actions, who makes contact with people whose names he has been given, but about whom he knows nothing. In a thousand unspoken thoughts, he struggles to understand what is happening and to allay his fears that this is all a trap. For how can he tell a Resistance fighter from a spy, how can he be sure whether or not an order is authentic? His whole war is a journey into a darkness in which the meaning of things is unclear.

And in which everything is ambiguous: he is called upon to carry out assassinations of great cruelty, and he dopes so, his hands trembling, his teeth chattering, but with no remorse. Because he is does not doubt that it is right that he should do what he has been ordered to do. His clear conscience has nothing whatever to do with politics or ideology, but is based on the simple conviction: “I am against the Germans because they are our enemies. They invaded us and I am fighting in self-defence.” But the perfect clarity of this attitude can do nothing to alter the fatal moral ambiguity of the situations in which he will find himself, the deeds he must perform.

There is a dark poetry ever-present in Hermans’ world: in an deserted villa, where he has come to eliminate a collaborator working for the Gestapo, Osewoudt must first to kill two innocent women (if the word ‘innocent’ has a place in Hermans’ universe), his wife and a woman who has come to the villa with a young boy - the collaborator’s son - seeking a passage to Amsterdam. Osewoudt manages to spare the boy’s life in the massacre but afterwards, for his own safety, he must take care of the child. He takes the boy to the station, goes with him on the train, leads him through the streets of Amsterdam, all the while the spoiled child keeps an interminable, futile conversation which Osewoudt cannot help but join in. Here is an example of this dark poetry: the juxtaposition of the triple murder with the prattling of a precocious child.

As the US Army approaches, Dorbeck (in what will be their last meeting) brings Osewoudt a nurse’s uniform to ensure his safety in the last days of the war. Wearing this disguise, Osewoudt finds himself the subject of advances from a German officer, a homosexual who thinks that in Osewoudt he has finally found a woman he finds attractive… But that’s enough… I don’t want to recount the whole of this improbably rich novel. I shall tell you only the essential: when the long-awaited liberation, finally rolls with American tanks into the Netherlands, the mood of the book becomes darker still. Osewoudt is arrested by the liberators. Their secret police have suspect him of being a spy. He defends himself: surely the long weeks he spent in a German jail speak for him? On the contrary: the Germans were attempting to hide him, to protect him. He reminds them of the admirably brutal assassinations he carried out. Surely these are the best proof of his innocence? No, because no one believe he committed them. During the months of endless interrogation, he tries to find someone who will testify in his favour. In vain. All the witnesses are dead. But what about Dorbeck? He escaped. Osewoudt insists that he was following orders from Dorbeck. But his interrogators do not even know the name. Osewoudt has no evidence to support his story. It is true, that his accusers have not a shred of evidence either, but the suspicions of victors, even unsubstantiated, are quickly transformed into truths.

The fatal moral ambiguity has engulfed Osewoudt’s life. This is the way of things: while war rages, such diabolical uncertainties are invisible to people blinded by passion, but afterwards, when the time comes to mete out verdicts and punishments, like smoke after a fire, a lingering smoke, it will blight the lives of nations for years to come. And what of Osewoudt? How did he fare? Badly. He was executed by firing squad.

Having closed the book, I would like to learn more about the author: what was his path as an artist? Behind that dark poetry, did he have a surrealist bent? Were there political reasons for his anti-conformism? What of his relationship with his country? Etc. I can give only a handful of dates: born in 1921, he published The Darkroom of Damocles in 1958, left the Netherlands in 1973, lived for twenty years in Paris before leaving it for Belgium. Since his death in 1995, the Dutch have come to consider him to be their greatest modern writer and now, Europe is slowly coming to know his work.

I know nothing more about him. Nor would it add anything to my enjoyment of his book. Works of art are hounded by a baying pack of reviews, of facts whose uproar drowns out the actual voice of a novel or a poem. I closed Hermans’ book grateful for my own ignorance, which offered me the gift of silence, a silence in which I could hear the voice of this novel in all its purity, in all the beauty of what goes unexplained, of what remains unknown.

Milan Kundera 2007

[1] The Skin, 1949, translated by David Moore

[2] De donkere kamer van Damokles, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam - This is a translation of a review published in Le Monde des livres, 26 janvier 2007, translation made by Frank Wynne