H.C. Branner: Ingen kender natten (No Man Knows the Night)
If I had to pick the two finest World War II novels, it would not be the obvious ones like The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22 or even The English Patient. No, it would be The Underground City and this one. This is not, of course, a great war novel in the American style – there are no epic battles or tales of bravery under fire. It is the story of a country (Denmark) under German occupation and the story of three men – the devoted patriot, the turncoat and the idealist turned alcoholic.
The story starts in Copenhagen in 1945. Everyone is getting nervous as the war comes to an end. Simon is a resistance fighter but somewhat naive. At the beginning of the novel he is on the run and thinks he has been betrayed by Lydia, whom he has loved since childhood. He manages to escape over the roofs into a very grand house. The house is owned by Gabriel Blom, a financier who has been pro-Hitler and who is dying of heart disease. When Simon arrives an end-of-the-world party is taking place. The key figure is not, however, Gabriel but his son-in-law, Thomas, who, as usual, is drunk. Thomas is brilliant, was an idealist and is now a drunk. The book is mainly about how Thomas became what he now is and how he redeems himself, firstly as a result of Gabriel’s death, secondly by the love of a good woman and, of course, thirdly, by helping Simon and his friends. It could all have been mawkish but it turns out to be an excellent early existentialist novel (bear in mind that the existentialists owed a lot to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard) and, in the hands of Branner, it becomes one of the finest World War II works, a work where style and philosophy are both well matched and beautifully handled.
First published by Gyldendal in 1955
First published in English by Secker & Warburg in 1958
Translated by A.I. Roughton