Posts Tagged ‘an untouched house’

An Untouched House

July 15, 2018

None of the great triumvirate of post-war Dutch writers – Harry Mulisch, Gerard Reve, Willem Henrik Hermans – have been particularly well treated in their translation into English. Mulisch has been the most widely, if haphazardly, translated, but only The Discovery of Heaven is still in print, with others (particularly Two Women and The Stone Bridal Bed) hard to find; Reve was largely unknown until the publication of The Evenings in 2016; and Hermans had only two previously translated novels, The Darkroom of Damocles and Beyond Sleep, to his name, both of which appeared over ten years ago having waited over forty years to be translated. Now, finally, we have another work of Hermans to read thanks to David Colmer and Pushkin Press.

An Untouched House is a novella of only eighty pages (this edition comes with an afterward by Cees Nooteboom) but is a powerful evocation of the chaos and confusion of war, a deliberate puncturing of the picture of heroic resistance to the German army which must have been shocking in 1951 when it was originally published. It begins (and ends) with an image of destruction:

“The main bough, almost the whole crown was suddenly lying at the foot of the tree without my hearing the crack.”

Immediately we sense the war-weariness of our narrator, a lone Dutchman in a band of partisans, “there wasn’t a single person I could understand.” He walks on, under fire, but all he can think of is his thirst. Hermans’ descriptive powers are such that the opening scene, familiar from so many films, is experienced anew. A downed plane “changed into a comet of soot”, the explosion as it hits the ground “like the world making a swallowing sound.” Shooting German soldiers, the narrator sees them “bent double like butterflies being mounted.” A lull in the fighting is described:

“…as if the war was a large sick body that had just been given a shot of morphine.”

Hermans, however, is more interested in the psychology than the events of war. When the narrator is given an order he doesn’t understand it leads him to an empty house:

“I realised that this would be the first time in a very long while that I had entered a real house, a genuine home.”

Discovering hot water, he decides to have a bath, but, once clean, he cannot stand the thought of putting his filthy uniform back on, instead borrowing a shirt and trousers from a wardrobe. He falls asleep only to be wakened by the ringing of the doorbell: on the discovery of a German officer at the door he claims to be the owner of the house.

An Untouched House, short as it is, still has many twists and turns to lead us through, each darker than the last, before its end. We enter a moral no man’s land, where the narrator’s ownership of a house he does not know (“How many rooms in the house? I wasn’t even sure how many floors.”) mirrors his own life.

In particular, Hermans takes aim at the idea of culture. The house itself, with its piano, on which the German officers play Beethoven, and its library, is a symbol of culture. To the German officer who has commandeered the house, shaving is the apotheosis of culture:

“I have been in the army for forty years today. Shaving with hot water, war or no war! That is what I understand by culture!”

For the old man who collects fish they are “something of unique cultural significance.” He praises the Germans as “defenders of our culture”. These ridiculous ideas suggest something of the dark humour which runs through Hermans’ work, accompanied by a nihilism which is visible in the novella’s conclusion. For all its brevity, An Untouched House is a classic of war literature.

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