A Guardian Angel Recalls

Willem Frederik Hermans, one of the great Dutch writers of the 20th century, has remained stubbornly unknown in English, even when both Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles were translated by Ina Rilke in 2006 and 2007 respectively. (Hermans may himself be partly to blame as, according to Michael Pye, “He was convinced translators betrayed him and he resisted being published outside the Netherlands in case his Dutch enemies laughed at the sales figures.”) Now, however, Pushkin Press, perhaps noting their success with Gerard Reve, have not only brought these two novels back into print, but issued new translations by David Colmer of An Untouched House (2018) and A Guardian Angel Recalls.

A Guardian Angel Recalls is the story of Dutch prosecutor Bert Alberegt in the days before and during the German invasion of the Netherlands. It is, indeed, told by his guardian angel:

“He had stopped believing in God and no longer knew me. Still, I had kept my eye on him all that time. His whole life. I was his guardian angel.”

The novel opens as he says goodbye to Sysy, a young woman he has fallen in love with, a Jewish German refugee who is leaving for America. He worries that he will never see her again, and that the relationship (he is thirty-eight, she is twenty-five) was simply one of necessity on her part:

“In her position, going to bed with her rescuer and doing everything he asked of her was nothing short of unavoidable.”

He even considers having her arrested on the ship so she can be returned to him, but as the guardian angel points out: “It was the voice of the devil that whispered.” This highlights the moral ambiguity of Alberegt’s character, which is, indeed, best exemplified as a dialectic between his ‘angel’ and ‘devil’ as he reasons his actions, though noticeably always in his own best interests. This will be seen even more forcibly in the crime which will haunt him throughout the novel: a young child he knocks down and kills as he returns from the docks when he drives the wrong way along a deserted country road. What should he do?

“There was nobody else in sight. Nowhere any indication or suspicion that someone might be watching him from some hidden vantage point.”

He throws the child’s body into the undergrowth – “like holding a puppy by the loose skin over its backbone” – and continues on his way. The accident is the most dramatic form (unless we count the war) of Hermans’ intention to demonstrate the randomness of life. Alberegt may feel he is purposeful in his choices but, like everyone else, those choices are influenced by events he has no control over -to the point that we question whether they are choices in any meaningful way. This perhaps explains the ‘angel’ and ‘devil’, a well-worn symbol of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ choices which Hermans steadily undermines.

Another clear example of the lottery of life in the novel is the discovery of the name R. Alberegt on a list of Dutch nationals the Gestapo intend to arrest on arrival in Holland. Could it be Alberegt’s brother, Rense, an abstract painter whose work is only of importance to himself? Or perhaps the ‘R’ is in fact a ‘B’ and Alberegt himself is in danger. Is this simply an excuse to get to England, or a valid reason? Is he motivated by the danger, his desire to reunite with Sysy, or his guilt?

Beyond Alberegt’s personal dilemmas, the novel also gives us a dramatic picture of the invasion of the Netherlands, which began on the 10th of May 1940 and ended four days later with the Dutch surrender. This is foreshadowed early in the novel as Alberegt asks himself:

“Who in the world believed that the Netherlands had even the slightest hope of holding firm if Germany really invaded?”

Later, in a bar, he overhears an airman say that the Dutch air force only have fourteen fully armed planes.

The invasion itself is portrayed at ground level, with competing stories of what is happening (and Alberegt always at a disadvantage due to his erratic car radio). Rumours of German paratroopers in Dutch uniforms, “traitors everywhere” leaflets promising ‘liberation’ – at one point Rense thinks that the water has been poisoned. Civilians are asked to say ‘Scheveningen’ to prove they are Dutch (as Germans can’t pronounce it). The rumours are punctuated by sudden acts of violence such as when Alberegt sees the courthouse bombed:

“It was the section with his own office. He had a clear view of his desk, chairs, and bookcases, like in a doll’s house with a hinged front you can swing open. And then he saw the floor of his office break off like a piece of biscuit.”

Meanwhile Alberegt vacillates between resignation and attempting to flee to England.

A Guardian Angel Recalls is as tense as a thriller, but it is a novel without heroes. Our sympathy for Alberegt is based, like that of his guardian angel, on proximity, and the increasing sense that his attempts to rationalise what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ only complicates his life. It is great war novel which, at the same time, transcends the war.

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