An Untouched House
|Author:||Willem Frederik Hermans|
[This review contains spoilers (in fact, it is one big spoiler - just read the book)]
“If people stopped feeling altogether, the world would be greatly improved. They could lose an arm or a leg without noticing; it wouldn’t feel any different from cutting your nails. They could bleed to death without noticing. People should be numb. Then they would never have reached such numbers. This many would have never survived.” Traumatised and exhausted by years of fighting the Nazis as one of a multinational group of partisans now attached to the Red Army, the narrator of this nihilistic novella (first published in Dutch in 1950) leaves his unit on the orders of a commander whose language he cannot understand and enters the streets of spa town (possibly in Hungary?) that has been abandoned by its population. He walks straight up to a large intact house, and, finding its door ajar, he wipes his feet and enters. There is nobody in the house, but, as when a hero enters a fairy tale castle, he finds that the house contains every comfort and provision, with even soup still warm on the stove. "For the first time in a very long time I had entered a real house, a genuine home,” he states, and it is not long before it becomes clear to him that he will not be returning to his unit but remaining in this house for the duration of the war. “Stay here forever, I thought, where nothing can happen. If the whole world disappeared, I wouldn’t even notice, as long as this house, this grass, and all the things I can see around me stay the same.” The person that the narrator may once have been is a casualty of the war; he is now nothing more than a symptom of his circumstances. “Those who only think are only half in touch with themselves,” he says. “I only did things that didn’t require any thought.” Rationality is no virtue in war. The head is, in fact, he points out, the source of the war: “This bowl of bone covered with its lid and moveable hole, this was where it all came from: the other people, the world, the war, the dreams, the words, the deeds that seemed to happen automatically.” The narrator is about to force the door of the one room that the house keys will not unlock (another fairy tale trope), when there is a knock on the street door: the Nazis have retaken the town and are requisitioning the house to billet officers. The narrator finds it expedient to pretend to be the owner of the house - even though the trousers he has requisitioned are ludicrously short - and to remain in the upper rooms of the house. All identities are dissolved by war and become fluid. “The owner of the house had never existed, that was the truth! He had been the intruder, not me.” For a time, uneasily but not particularly uneasily, the narrator shares the house with the Nazi officers. One day, when the officers are away, he climbs a ladder in an attempt to enter the locked room through one of the blacked-out windows, but he is surprised by the return of the house’s actual owner, and, as the novella gains momentum towards it awful end, the narrator shoots him from the window and strangles his wife. As he passes the door of the locked room on his way to hiding the bodies, he notices it is ajar, and, in a passage that would make your jaw drop if I hadn’t here told you about it, he finds that the room is filled with aquariums containing rare fish attended by an immensely old man, the owner’s father, who, existing in quite some other narrative, states that his son and daughter-in-law have been hit and killed by a shell. Circumstances allow no space for initiative, merely for reaction. The, as the town is recaptured by the Red Army, the Germans flee. When the commandant advises the narrator to escape, the narrator locks him in the cellar and returns to the house with his partisan unit who enact a shocking carnival of destruction, finally relieving the house of the qualities that had attracted the narrator. “It was like the house had been putting on an act the whole time and was only now showing itself as it, in reality, had always been.” Hermans’s stark, condensed style is very effective in showing how fragile our so-called virtues are in the face of crisis, and how violence ultimately relieves us of whatever qualities we thought had defined us.
A brooding meditation on violence by a classic post-war Dutch writer who has drawn comparisons to Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. A mesmerizing, dark meditation on the legacy of war. An interloper and opportunist makes a grand house his own in the chaos of a war-torn countryside, only to find himself involved with occupying forces and enraged locals.