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Egon Hostovský: Úkryt (The Hideout)

This book was first published in 1945 by Random House, translated by Fern Long. This is a new edition by Pushkin Press.

The story is narrated by a Czech engineer. Indeed, he has invented a special anti-aircraft gun sight which he thinks could have won the war. However, he is now considering destroying it, to the annoyance of his boss, presumably so it does not fall into German hands. The Czech government can no longer use it, while he does not want to give it to the French or British because of their behaviour over the Munich Agreement.

We meet him while he is hiding out in the house of a friend in France. He had given the impression to his family that he was going to Ostrova for a few days but, instead, went to Paris. He was arrested (by mistake, he says) and, by the time he was released, he had to flee the Germans. He managed to get to the house of his friend, Dr. Aubin, in Normandy, and is now, as the title tells us, hiding out there. He cannot come out, in case he is seen by the Germans. We are learning all of this information, as he is writing a letter to his wife, Hanichka, about his fate. He is writing now, not in any hope that she will get it any time soon but because he is about to undertake a suicidal mission for the Resistance.

At the time of writing he has been there two years, hiding in the cellar. Dr Aubin visits him at night bringing him the newspaper and with the newspaper and what he can hear from the neighbouring radios, he has an idea of how the war is going on, though he is not happy at hearing it only in a foreign language. Not surprisingly, he is generally miserable at his situation and feels it unfair that he, an innocent man, has been caught up in this way.

Much of his time is spent thinking about his past life and, particularly, his family life. On the surface, his family life seemed happy but it clearly was not. But were we happy? At the moment when that question first occurred to me I should have spoken, I should have looked for words and ways to keep from happening the thing which did happen—that in the end I should vanish into emptiness, disappear like a thief. He later says I felt absolutely certain that something was wrong in my work, in my marriage, in my plans, in everything that I was saying or doing. He suspects his wife of infidelity. He is planning to abandon his gun sight. He is attracted to Olga, a colleague. It is made worse when is talking to an elderly lawyer, for whom he has little respect. The lawyer says that the is completely happy. Our narrator felt envy, and a kind of indefinable discontent at the same time.

This is in July 1938 so the prospect of war is still remote and he does not believe there will be a war, even though his friend, the composer, Nosek, does. However, in the local pub, where he and Nosek are discussing the matter, a local clairvoyant predicts there will be a terrible war, though both our narrator and Nosek will come out of it unscathed.

However, we later get a more accurate picture of what happened to him, namely his flight to Paris, what he did there, his meeting with Dr. Aubin, his arrest and release, his stay with Dr. Aubin, both before and after the German invasion, and details of the man he kills and why and how he does it, all of which is somewhat at odds with the letter he is writing to Hanichka.

In addition to these events, we also get to see his state of mind, which is not sound. He is in the dark most of time and sees Aubin only in the evening, but on a few occasions, Aubin is absent for a while, which causes him more consternation. Aubin seems to take the situation quite glibly, even when he himself is arrested and even as he helps wounded Resistance fighters. Our narrator trips back to his childhood and imagines that he is there. He imagines that he is back in Czechoslovakia. He also thinks about escaping, fleeing perhaps to England, but Aubin advises him against it. But he also hears about the grim situation in France: the deportation of workers, about executions, attacks, betrayals and heroisms, but all the news was too full of action to penetrate my brain.

This is a very well told tale of a man in a grim predicament, partially of his own making but, to a great extent, because he is caught up in a war. Unlike many war novels, this is not about a man in armed conflict but a man facing his own demons, with the situation exacerbated by the wartime conditions he faces. Hostovský himself managed to escape to the United States while his narrator faces a suicidal mission to help defeat the Germans. Nevertheless, Hostovský tells an excellent story of a man trapped and unable to escape, faced with only two alternatives, death at the hands of the Germans or death by suicide.

Publishing history

First published by Nákladem Autorových Přátel v Texasu in 1943
First published in English by Random House in 1945