Author(s): Egon Hostovský; Fern Long (Translator)
A kind, blundering Czech engineer is pressured by the Nazi government to hand over his invention, which could be key to their military operations. He flees to Paris, hoping to sell his invention to the French government instead; yet when the Germans invade France, he is forced into hiding, and spends months in a dark, damp cellar. Alone, he dwells on his memories - of his troubled marriage, and his decision to leave his wife behind in Czechoslovakia. When he is given the unexpected chance to redeem himself, both to his wife and history, he seizes it with utter determination - even though this heroic act will be his last.
A powerful and moving novel about one man's final, fatal, heroic act of resistance in Nazi France.
“All the love I am able to wring out of my desolate heart, all the feeling and devotion I may be putting into these lines, is released in me only because I know that I shall soon die.” The Hideout takes the form of a long valedictory letter by a Czech engineer to his wife from the cellar in France in which he has been hiding in an attempt to wait out the Second World War. The engineer confesses to his wife that, out of boredom of family life, in 1939 he followed a young Jewish widow, Madame Olga, to Paris, and that he dared not return to Czechoslovakia after the German invasion as he believed that the Germans would be hunting for him because he had destroyed the blueprints for an anti-aircraft gun-sight he had invented. When the Germans then invade France, he accepts the offer of a Dr Aubin, a man of indeterminate taste and ambivalent personality, to hide in the cellar of his house in Normandy until the war ends. Ominously, when they meet, Dr Aubin tells the engineer of a ‘cousin’ who was kept in the cellar as he slowly went mad: “he didn’t last long.” The book goes on to chart the disintegration of the engineer’s mental and physical capacities, describing his killing of a German soldier and ending with his consent to blow up a ship on behalf of the Resistance with the cost of his own life. It becomes clear that, by the time of writing, the engineer lives in a world that has for a long time had little resemblance to actuality, but it is unclear exactly when this divergence became established. I would contend that the insanity overwhelmed him quite early in his narrative, and his particular dangers are entirely delusional. There is no evidence that the Germans were in fact at all interested in his destruction of the blueprints, and they would hardly recognise him or be looking for him in France in any case. His whole flight and secretion is perhaps a sublimation of his guilt about his infidelity, his lack of specific danger contrasting with the real danger faced by the Jewish widow Madame Olga, whom he abandons as soon as the Germans invade France. The engineer tells of his years hiding in the cellar of the house of the Mephistophelian Dr Aubin, the delineation of whom may or may not be in reference to an actual person. He tells of the torment he suffers when Dr Aubin has a German soldier boarding in the house above his head, a man who peers into the cellar, noseless and demonic. Clearly by this time Dr Aubin and the boarder are little more than projections of the engineer’s paranoia, serving to reinforce the ‘necessity’ of his self-incarceration. When Dr Aubin suggests that the Germans “aren’t fighting against people but against nature,” he affronts the engineer’s certainty that the Germans are interested in his ‘crime’ against them, and his suggestion that the the Germans may not in fact be interested in his anti-aircraft gun-sight merely makes the engineer deeply suspicious of Dr Aubin and strengthens his insane resolve. “My memories and my visions were like blocks which I could use to built infinite structures.” Isolated in his own head, the engineer so misconstrues his own history that he cannot experience his present surroundings as anything beyond his delusions. He sees from his cellar window his “little double,” a child playing with an imaginary dog, and when he finally sees a German soldier (a “German soldier”), it is, implausibly, his only German school-mate (in SS uniform), and the engineer immediately tells him all his secrets. When Fischer offers the engineer safe passage in return for his anti-aircraft gun-sight, a way out of the cellar, the engineer kills him with a spade and hides the body under his bed until Dr Aubin eventually returns and disposes of it. Clearly, by this time, the Fischer figure is as real as the child’s ‘dog’, evidence that the engineer’s mental deterioration is reaching a critical point. The Hideout is such a good depiction of delusional paranoia and attendant claustrophobia partly because we have only the narrator’s own words with which to grapple with his reality, and partly because delusional dangers often convincingly clad themselves in the semblance of real dangers in times when everyone’s version of reality is distorted by fear.