by Willem Frederik Hermans
“…it was impossible to imagine ever having been capable of thinking things through; as automatically as if one’s deeds were the world’s thoughts.”
This short but powerful novella is a minacious reflection on the brutality of war by the Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995), whose most famous works include The House of Refuge (1952), The Darkroom of Damocles (1958) and Beyond Sleep (1966). Along with Harry Mulisch and Gerard Reve, he was one of the three most important authors in the Netherlands during the post-war period, receiving the highly prestigious Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren in 1977.
First published in 1951, An Untouched House concerns a partisan with the Red Army during the second world war. In the chaos of a battle-sapped German countryside he discovers an empty house, apparently unscathed by the surrounding devastation and, exhausted, falls asleep in the drawing room. He wakes to the sound of German boots marching up the front path, hides his filthy uniform and poses as the owner.
The interloper, whose name we never learn, keeps up the pretence, but becomes gradually more embroiled with the occupying forces and locals. The narrative is suffused with a fearful apprehension, and when the Soviets finally arrive, the story’s denouement is a hideously depraved and vicious spree of violence.
Translated into English by David Colmer, winner of the International Dublin Literary Award, the book is only 120 pages long (which includes a lengthy afterword by Cees Nooteboom) but is shockingly impactful. While I cannot claim to have relished reading this 20th century classic, I was filled with admiration for its unflinching depiction of what happens when war numbs the human heart and destroys empathy.
Many thanks to Pushkin Press for providing an advance review copy of this title.