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Willem Frederik Hermans: Het behouden huis (An Untouched House)

War is Hell, as many novels tell us. This long story is definitely in the War Is Hell genre so if you do not like wanton cruelty, random deaths and the like, you may not enjoy this work or, indeed, Hermans’ work as a whole.

Our unnamed narrator is a Dutch man fighting with Soviet partisans. He left the Netherlands in 1940 and it is now 1944. He had been captured by the Germans and sentenced to three years hard labour. He had escaped and then been recaptured and sent to Strellwitz, escaped again, caught again and then had then jumped out of a train. He had landed up with a partisan group, though he does not speak a word of their language. The only person he can speak to – in French – is a Spaniard who has been away from Spain for eight years and who was a Communist and had therefore fled during the Civil War.

The group is attacking Germans, though our narrator has no idea where they are (a couple of clues imply that it might be Hungary but it might not). They are now attacking a town and he is shooting Germans as they flee. He soon realises that they are in some sort of spa town.

The sergeant warns him not to go in the house the Germans had fled from, as it might be booby-trapped and gives him an order which he does not understand, pointing towards the town. He walks towards the town and sees that the town appears to be empty, the houses abandoned. He comes across a nice-looking house and goes in. The inhabitants seem to have left recently as there is soup on the stove and a coat on the sofa. A quick inspection reveals that there is no-one there.

There is, however, a bath, a shaving kit and civilian clothes. The water is still running so he gives himself a nice bath and has a shave. He then lies down on the bed in the civilian clothes. He is woken by a knock on the door. There is a German soldier at the door. It seems that at the Germans have retaken the town while he was asleep. The German asks him if he is the inhabitant of the house and he quickly replies that he is. The German wants to billet officers with him and he has to accept, keeping the upstairs (including a locked room) for himself.

The Germans do cause some trouble – they break into the cellar – but when he complains, the cellar door is repaired, the keys handed to him and a promise is made that it will not be repeated. He makes himself at home but finds few books except some in a language he does not recognise, which seem to be about fish.

But what if the owners now return? Or the partisans retake the town? Or the Germans realise that he is not the owner? And what is in the locked room and why do none of the keys he has fit the lock?

As mentioned above the book shows the horrors of war. Interestingly, it is the partisans – nominally the side of the narrator and of the Dutch – who behave worse: wanton cruelty, random killing and destruction and no respect for anything or anyone. The Germans at least are more or less polite and, at least, when they do cause some damage – breaking into the cellar – they apologise and make it good. The German colonel believes in order, stating that he shaves every morning at 6.30 a.m. whatever is happening, even if he is about to be killed. None of the partisans, including our narrator, behave with any respect for anything, anybody or the rules of war.

The house offers our narrator some respite but only a little, as the realities of the war soon come back, with the arrivals of the Germans. Naturally it does not end well. I looked deep into the house’s diseased and dying maw. It was like it had been putting on an act the whole time and was only now showing itself as it, in reality, had always been: a hollow, draughty cavern, rancid and rotting at its core.

Publishing history

First published in 1951 by De Bezige Bij
First published in English in 2018 by Pushkin Press
Translated by David Colmer