Best Translated Book 2008 Longlist: The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans
We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke. (Netherlands, Overlook)
Willem Frederik Hermans is a good example of a classic author who probably should’ve been translated years ago, but for some reason, was only recently picked up by Harvill and Overlook. Now, his two big books—Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles—are available to English readers.
The Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature has a good deal of info about Hermans on their website, including this rather interesting bio:
Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) is one of the greatest post-war Dutch authors. Before devoting his entire life to writing, Hermans had been teaching Physical Geography at the University of Groningen for many years. He had already started writing and publishing in magazines at a young age. His polemic and provocative style led to a court case as early as 1952. His caustic pieces were compiled in Mandarijnen op zwavelzuur (Mandarines in Sulphuric Acid, 1963), which was reprinted with additions a number of times. It is Hermans’s belief that in order to survive people have to create own reality. It is inevitable that all these experiences of reality will collide. Language is essential to create order out of chaos and plays an important role in this process. In his essays on Wittgenstein, Hermans studied this problem in depth. In his novels and stories Hermans places his characters in a world of certainty for themselves but equivocal for the reader. It is in this field of tension that the intrigue in De tranen der acacia’s (Acacia’s Tears, 1949) and in De donkere kamer van Damocles (The Darkroom of Damocles, 1958) develops. Although stories such as Moedwil en misverstand (Malice and Misunderstanding) and Paranoia have a surrealistic tendency, Hermans’ novels The Darkroom Of Damocles, Nooit meer slapen (Beyond Sleep), Uit talloos veel miljoenen (From Countless Millions) are more realistic or satirical and everything in his rich oeuvre is subordinate to the author’s pessimistic philosophy.
Darkroom of Damocles is about the tobacconist Henri Osewoudt, a man a bit too short to fight in the Dutch army during World War II, but who gets involved with Dorbeck, a mysterious figure supposedly involved with the Dutch resistance who looks exactly like Osewoudt. Osewoudt is very much a pawn, doing whatever Dorbeck tells him, such as helping British agents and murdering traitors.
The whole time, it’s clear that Osewoudt is in way over his head, and isn’t completely sure what’s going on. What’s worse—for him personally—is that he’s suspected by both the Germans and the Dutch, a situation that really comes to a head after the war ends, and Dorbeck is nowhere to be found.
The impossibility of deciding what’s “right” from what’s “wrong” in relation to the war, is what really drives this book. The NLPVF also has an interesting page about this novel, and its lasting importance:
The story of Osewoudt’s fateful wanderings through the ‘sadistic universe’ (the title of one of Hermans’ essay collections) is extraordinarily gripping. Is Osewoudt hero or villain? Or is he a psychopath, driven by delusions? The Darkroom of Damocles is composed of sharp, suggestive and relentless sentences, and its ambiguous ending is debated by critics to this day. It is the impossibility of ascertaining whether Osewoudt was on the ‘right’ side or the ‘wrong’ side – the moral issue of the Second World War in a nutshell – that makes Hermans’ novel as breathtaking now as when it was written a decade after the war.
Michael Orthofer of The Complete Review has a really nice review of this book that’s worth reading in its entirety. He’s a big fan:
Hermans’ isn’t so much anti-heroic novel as un-heroic. It offers a remarkable picture of the Dutch experience in World War II, and of the difficulty faced by the individual trying to contribute to society. Osewoudt is not even particularly incompetent — a girl sent over from England shows how spectacularly wrong things can be done — and he even makes some contributions (though, as murder, they’re of a decidedly ugly sort), but certainty and a type of competence, as manifested by Dorbeck, prove not to be much better.
Unsentimental and brutally honest, with both a sense for the absurd and a sharp wit, Hermans hasn’t written a sympathetic story, but it’s impressive, nevertheless — grandiose, even, especially in capturing some specific Dutch types. The characters — including Osewoudt, his German captor, his uncle, and the women in his life — are also very nicely realised, and the plotting is excellent. De donkere kamer van Damokles is both war-time thriller and metaphysical mystery. It leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling, but it’s a worthwhile ride.