Michael Flick's Reviews > The Darkroom of Damocles

The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans
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Apr 07, 12

bookshelves: worst
Read from March 31 to April 07, 2012

** spoiler alert ** This is a peculiar but ultimately unsatisfactory book.

Who tells the tale is uncertain and likely unreliable: 99% is told by a third-person narrator who has access only to Henri Osewoudt's world; the other 1% is first-person Osewoudt, just a few sentences intruding into the third-person narrative randomly and sporadically throughout (there are also two brief writings by Osewoudt). Neither narrator has more than the most superficial access to Osewoudt. All the characters are cartoons.

When he is an adolescent, Osewoudt's mother kills his father. She's mad: we're told by her psychiatrist very late in the book that she did things at the behest of some external agent: "There was a voice, a 'something,' an 'it,' telling her what to do." "She herself did not feel responsible for what she did"--"she was not incurably insane; she was a perfectly normal woman as long as she did not feel threatened by the 'it.'"

Osewoudt is sent sent to live with his uncle. His cousin, the daughter of that uncle, 7 years older, seduces him. He later marries her against his uncle's advice and passes up university to run his late father's tobacco shop, living with his wife and mother on the premises.

Osewoudt is wholly passive. An active agent, "Dorbeck," enters his life right after the German invasion in World War II. This "Dorbeck" is Osewoudt's perfect double physically except that he shaves, his hair is black instead of blond, and his voce is like a bronze bell instead of like a teenage girl. He is also everything that Osewoudt is not: active. He is a Dutch army officer resisting the Germans. Osewoudt was rejected by the army because he was half a centimeter too short--"Dorbeck" stretched.

That's a clue: Does an army facing invasion turn down a man who is half a centimeter short?

"Dorbeck" directs Osewoudt to kill, first shooting a collaborator early in the war, then late in the war shooting another collaborator and his wife, then poisoning a German officer who seems to try to befriend him. Osewoudt on his own kills his wife and another German officer with a knife late in the war. Six murders. No thought, no remorse, no nothing (well, his wife turned him in to the Germans and the officer, drunk, made a pass at him when he was dressed as a nun/nurse). Just mindless murders.

Late in the war, Osewoudt is imprisoned by the Germans as an agent of the resistance--he protests that he's not, that's "Dorbeck." After the war, the allies imprison him as a German collaborator--he protests that he's not, everything he did was at the order of "Dorbeck." But "Dorbeck" cannot be found. And really no one except Osewoudt has ever definitely encountered him.

So: The author interest here is in what it would mean to have an absolutely private view of the world that nobody else can quite share, how that would shape the external world's moral judgement. The problem with this is that this private world is so attenuated: we're only told the superficial. There's no depth here at all.

And, really, the external world isn't much deeper, especially the allies, who don't have much in the way of a case against Osewoudt. And their ultimate action doesn't make sense: Why would they make Osewoudt develop film? And why would they laugh Osewoudt out of the room, his prison cell, let him walk away, past the sentry, no one tries to stop him, he's unarmed, and they mow him down with salvos from a Sten gun? I'm sorry: That's just incoherent and unbelievable. (But, then again, a paranoid schizophrenic is telling this tale….)

The book was written between 1952 and 1958. In 1971, the author added a "Postscript," a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein's posthumous "Philosophical Investigations": §462:

"I can look for him when he is not there, but not hang him when he is not there.
"One might want to say: 'But he must be somewhere there if I am looking for him.'
"Then he must be somewhere there too if I don't find him, and even if he doesn't exist at all."

Now, why did Hermans add this "Postscript"? We don't have a clue. It was added 13 years after the publication of this book in Dutch and 9 years after the first translation (by Roy Edwards in 1962) into English (the Ina Rilke translation of 2007 that I read comes long after Herman's death).

Wittgenstein! That certainly raises the ante.

I'd add an "epilogue," quote Wittgenstein from just a bit beyond §462:

"§464. My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense."

I'm not sorry that I read this book, but I wouldn't recommend it. For a coherent and compelling Dutch tale of World War II, I'd suggest "The Assault" by Harry Mulisch. That's a good read.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Merel I don't believe this book is about WWII. It's about humans and the decisions the make, if they make decisions at all. It is about the 'true' nature of humans en the writer believes this nature is only shown in extreme situations, such as war. The war is an important element of the book, because it allows the characters to behave as 'true' as possible.
I agree this isn't a book to read if you want to read about WWII in the Netherlands, but it is a very good book about humans and their behaviour. The way you have to make your own decision throughout the book makes this, at least for me, a good book.

message 2: by Johngrootsma (new)

Johngrootsma Hermans translated Wittgenstein and always made corrections after new printings (replacing commas, changing numbers, adding postscripts).
Some Dutch people would call him an Ant Fucker.

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