At the tail end of World War II, a partisan soldier finds a quiet sanctuary that delivers a brutal lesson about humanity at its worst.
In his informative afterword to this slim but potent war story, Cees Nooteboom writes that Dutch author Hermans (1921-1995; Beyond Sleep, 2007) adopted the credo of “creative nihilism, aggressive pity, total misanthropy.” All of those dark moods are on full display here, but Hermans conjures them so subtly that the full force of his despair doesn’t arrive until the closing pages. The narrator is a Dutch soldier in an unnamed patch of Europe making a final push against the Nazis. Assigned by his sergeant to hunt for booby traps, he stumbles across a quiet town and an abandoned house, where he quickly makes his weary self comfortable; it is “the first time in a very long while that I had entered a real house, a genuine home.” His solitary domestic AWOL existence doesn’t last long, of course: German soldiers arrive, mistaking him for the house’s owner, and ask him to take in troops. That opens the question of how complicit in evil we are willing to be for the sake of a soft bed. Quite a bit, Hermans suggests: After the home’s owners emerge and his stay is threatened, the narrator is willing to kill to keep his perch: “If the whole world disappears, I won’t even notice as long as this house, this grass, and all the things I can see around me stay the same,” he selfishly opines. Hermans doesn’t deliver an explicit moral judgement on the narrator (indeed, he’s sweetly reasonable throughout), but the thundering violence of the closing pages sends its own message. Fire, a suicide attempt, torture, and hanging are all shadowed by men killing with a cynical, mocking cruelty, stressing Hermans’ point that dreams of peace can easily become entangled in violence.
A dark wartime vision that evokes Koestler, Orwell, and Vonnegut.