Willem Frederik Hermans: De donkere kamer van Damokles (The Darkroom of Damocles)
Henri Osewoudt lived in Voorschoten and was twelve when his mother killed his father. Neither we nor Henri learn any of the details but we do know that the mother was put into a home and Henri went to live with his Uncle Bart, Aunt Fie and their nineteen-year old daughter, Ria, in Amsterdam. Henri was somewhat frightened the first night so Ria invited him into her bed. Three years later, he is no longer frightened but he is still in Ria’s bed, where Ria’s comfort is decidedly more friendly than it should have been.
In some ways Henri is immature. He is small for his age and, even as an adult, he does not have to shave. He takes up judo to make himself stronger. Obviously, in other ways, he is quite mature. He is getting tired of Ria and finds her ugly and seeks to replace her. However, he has no success with other women so Ria has to do.
His uncle and aunt were hoping he would go to university but, now that he is more or less an adult, he is determined not to do so. Indeed, his mother is being released from the home so, to the horror of his uncle and aunt, he plans to marry Ria (seven years his senior), return to Voorschoten, reopen his parents’ tobacco shop and look after his mother. His aunt is so horrified that she soon has a heart attack and dies.
Ria and Henri get married. The date is 25 August 1939. The following week the Nazis will invade Poland. The three of them move back to Voorschoten, reopen the shop and take in a lodger, a mature student called Moorlag. Henri joins the Home Guard and when, in May the following year, the Germans invade he is called out. Things soon settle down, even though the pharmacist nearby is pro-Nazi.
However, despite himself, Henri inadvertently gets involved with some very shady characters who seem to be part of a Dutch resistance organisation. Mysterious messages, strange photos passed to and fro, cryptic instructions, all become part and parcel of his life for a while. They then stop and suddenly restart after D-Day. Henri is given a pistol and he uses it, as he uses his judo skills. He has to help people, though he is not entirely sure which side they are on, kill people who may or may not be deserving of death and make strange assignations.
Though still married to Ria, it is not entirely surprising that he meets and has affairs with other women. Uncle Bart seems to fade into the background, Things get out of hand when the Gestapo raid his shop but he manages to escape, though Ria and his mother do not. I’ll be a new man, he thought, it’ll be a new life! Ria arrested, the tobacco shop closed down, Uncle Bart may well be gone, too. I’m being born again.
Much of his activities have been initiated by a man called Dorbeck. Henri claims, in his shop, to develop photos, though, in practice, he sends them away. Dorbeck comes to the shop to get some photos developed and it is he, above all, who drags Henri into the shady world of the resistance. Dorbeck appears and disappears. In particular, he resembles Henri in most ways, except for hair colour and the fact that he shaves. Other resistance characters come and go, but Dorbeck always seem to pop up eventually. Indeed there is an almost a four year gap between Dorbeck’s early appearances and his later ones.
In some ways, we might consider Henri as something of a hero. He kills collaborators and traitors, is caught by the Germans and beaten up but manages to escape. (Hermans seems to have a thing about the Dutch escaping from the Germans. In his earlier book Het behouden huis (An Untouched House), the narrator manages it three times while, in this book, Henri manages it twice.) He does not knowingly betray his comrades, even when being beaten (though does consider doing do).
Eventually, the war ends and Henri feels his troubles may be over and he can now settle down with his girlfriend. But that is when things go wrong. He is arrested for having betrayed numerous Dutch resistance fighters to the Germans. He knows that he is innocent and that Dorbeck will explain everything. But no-one has heard of Dorbeck and no-one can trace him. Given that Dorbeck closely resembles Henri, is he really a different person?
Henri’s uncle says of him that he is always taking the path of least resistance. It is easier to reopen the tobacco shop than go to university, easier to marry Ria than make the effort to find a more suitable girlfriend/wife, easier to do what Dorbeck tells him than to question him or say no. So, if he is a hero, he is a hero by default.
In many books about resistance fighters, as told by their own side, the resistance fighters are brave, heroic and generally honourable. Not only do these characteristics not really apply to Henri, nor do they apply to the others we meet. Yes of course, there is some bravery, as they risk capture and torture but Hermans’ Germans, in this book, are not the vicious Gestapo thugs we have come to know from other novels. Yes, Henri gets beaten up but he is not viciously tortured. Indeed, some of the Germans are keener on getting out alive and separating themselves from their colleagues. Most of the other resistance fighters tend to be shady (in the sense of having dubious moral standards), though that perhaps reflects reality more than the standard heroic resistance fighter of other works. In short, there is no-one in this book we can admire, look up to or identify with.
The other issue is that of the unreliable narrator. The narration is in the third person so Henri is not the narrator. However, it is generally told from his point of view. By the end, lots of questions are raised about the validity of the story we have been told and not just the existence/identity of Dorbeck. His post-war captors question much of his account and find holes in it.
Hermans is not going to give us a account of heroism, courage and great deeds. He is going to give us a somewhat sordid tale where the main character is far from perfect, where there is no worthwhile counterpoint to the main character, and where survival, and survival alone, is often the sole driving force. This, of course, is probably a more accurate depiction of the real world.
This book deservedly has a very high reputation in the Netherlands. Some critics have compared it to the work of Camus and Sartre. However, I do not see that at all. There are no actes gratuits or, indeed, any of the self-introspection of the French writers. If there is a comparison to be made, I find more similar to his compatriot Gerard Reve. In many ways, Henri is far more like Fritz van Egters of De avonden (The Evenings) (which was published eleven years before this book) than any Camus or Sartre hero. Whoever you compare him to, however, this is certainly a very fine war novel.
First published in 1958 by Van Oorschot
First published in English in 1962 by Heinemann
Translated by Ina Rilke