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Willem Frederik Hermans: Herinneringen van een engelbewaarder (A Guardian Angel Recalls)
Yes, it really is about a guardian angel (and his adversary, the Devil). The guardian angel tells the story and tries to guide and protect our hero, Bert Alberegt, while the Devil intervenes to steer him off the strait and narrow.
Bert is a Dutch public prosecutor. He had been a defence lawyer but kept losing so switched sides and now he wins more. He is the adored son of Thilda Alberegt-Grijze, a fairly successful singer and has a younger brother, Rense, who is a failed artist. All his paintings are monochrome. He is currently in a blue phase so his paintings are simply canvasses all painted blue. He believes he is going to be recognised as a great artist. No-one else does and no-one buys his paintings so he has to earn his living as a school art teacher, a job he hates. He is married to Paula who realises she married the wrong brother.
Bert had been engaged to Mimi but he was not very enthusiastic about it so she went off and married his best friend, Erik Losecaat, a successful publisher. He has since fallen in love with Sysy. Sysy is a German Jewish refugee and a Communist. She has escaped Nazi Germany (we are now in May 1940) and is now eager to escape the Netherlands for England, fearing an imminent Nazi invasion. With his connections, Bert has managed to get her a passport and a berth on a ship going to England. She seems happy to leave, saying she can be more help to her family (some of whom are in concentration camps) and her comrades in England or the US than in the Netherlands. Bert is passionately in love with her and is going to miss her. Indeed, he will spend much of the book wondering how he can join her.
He has to hurry back from taking her to the ship,leaving from the Hook of Holland, in order to attend a trial, where he will be the prosecutor. He decides to take a short cut along a road which is a one way road going against him. However, he feels he will meet no-one and it will be quicker. As he is speeding along, he suddenly hits something. He gets out and soon discovers that he has hit a young girl and that she is dead. She has a letter in her hand which she was clearly going to post. The guardian angel tells him to do the right thing, the Devil says that he will get away with it. There is a house in the distance but it is apparent that no-one had been watching her. He takes the letter and throws her body into the bushes and drives off.
Throughout the book he will be worried that he will be caught, despite the fact that there is an imminent war, no-one knew he was there and there is no reason whatsoever to connect him with her death.
He returns to the trial where he is prosecuting a journalist who has criticised Hitler. The Netherlands has a law that it is a offence to criticise the leader of a friendly nation. Bert, however, surprises everyone, including himself. The defendant is more forthcoming: this place is a nuthouse full of ostriches with their heads stuck in the sand.
He is worried about being caught and now, more than ever, has a reason for fleeing the Netherlands and heading to England so he desperately tries to borrow money from various people and/or get foreign currency from a bank but it is not going to work out, not least as Hitler has other plans. The invasion of the Netherlands has started.
The situation is made even more complicated by the fact that he learns his friend Erik was involved in the rescue of the girl and has heard she is missing. He urges Bert to use his influence with the police to help find her. He will later have to give a lift to someone taking food for the family – German Jews – when the Dutch government bans all foreigners from leaving their residence.
Once the Nazis invade, the book gets quite serious as we follow the invasion. Bert sees quite a few deaths – fortunately angels are on hand – and even sees his own office blown up. Indeed, he would have been killed several times if his guardian angel had not diverted the bullets. We follow a host of rumours both saying the Germans are doing this or that or that the Dutch have repulsed them. Despite the invasion, Bert and family and friends seem to carry on with their lives, for example shopping and making dinner dates as usual. However, every time they are stopped by the Dutch police or army they have to say Scheveningen as, apparently, foreigners cannot it pronounce it properly.
Though we do see deaths and Germans invading, Hermans is not going to give up his facetiousness. Erik, for example, comments Every publisher has advisors, you can’t leave a stone unturned, but in nine out of ten cases I don’t take the slightest notice of their blather. Because you understand how it works. Those advisors always consider the manuscripts of other writers nothing short of brilliant, as long as those other writers consider their own manuscripts equally brilliant. Logrolling has a long history.
Bert’s mother is critical of the English: The English have always been expert at helping themselves to the best of whatever’s up for grabs. But music is beyond them. Compared to the Germans, they’re nowhere. They simply don’t get it. A nation with a tin ear.
However, things start to get worse – rumours and counter-rumours, people voicing their not always politically correct views on Hitler and the Nazis, everyone, including our heroes, trying to flee the country, Germans now seen and heard all over the country, the realisation that the French and British are not going to intervene, road blocks and Erik’s continual worry about the girl that he thinks has simply disappeared. All the while Bert’s guardian angel and the Devil are trying to steer him down what they consider to be the right path, while he himself hesitates between confession and flight.
The clever conceit of this novel is that it deals with two very serious subjects – Bert’s accidental killing of the young girl and his concealment of the death, causing distress to her family and, as he subsequently finds out, to his best friend, despite the fact that he is a government lawyer, paid to uphold the law and, of course the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands. However, while Hermans does recognise the seriousness of the two issues and treats them, in part, seriously, he also use humour. The use of the guardian angel,and the devil is funny, albeit with serious undertones. However, it is made funnier by the fact that the guardian angel is not particularly good at his job, letting Bert getting away with too much, though he does protect him from physical harm. The devil, as is usual, tends to get the best lines and is perhaps somewhat more successful than his adversary.
Does it work? Yes it does. I am not sure that the Dutch would be entirely enthusiastic about it as it is somewhat critical of them when the Nazis do attack. Hermans changed the book several times (all explained here (link in Dutch)), suggesting he may have had some doubts. Nevertheless, as he is such a skilled writer, writing about very serious issues while, at the same time, being often flippant works well to make for a very worthwhile novel. It is only a pity that it has taken fifty years to appear in English.
First published in 1971 by De Bezige Bij
First published in English in 2021 by Archipelago Books
Translated by David Colmer