The Darkroom of Damocles by WF Hermans – a review
First, a taste:
“The thing is, the man in the photograph actually exists. You’re not going to believe this, but it’s the truth. I met that man a number of times. His name is Dorbeck. We’re the same height, and he looks exactly like me. Really, like a twin. It’s hard to imagine how two unrelated people can look so alike, but we do. Only, his hair’s black, and he shaves. Everything else about him is completely different. He was an officer in the Dutch army back in ’40. When Rotterdam was being bombed he saw two Germans in the street. He had them shot immediately. So he was a wanted man from the moment we capitulated. He wasn’t afraid of anything. He asked me to do things for him a couple of times. I did everything he asked. I had the feeling I was an extension of him, or even part of him.
“When I first saw him I thought: this is the sort of man I ought to have been. It’s a bit difficult to put into words, but think of the goods being produced in factories; now and then a substandard article gets made, so they make another one and throw away the reject . . .
“Only they didn’t throw me away. I continued to exist, reject though I was. I didn’t realise I was the reject until I met Dorbeck. Then I knew. That’s when I knew he was the successful specimen, that compared to him I had no reason to exist, and the only way I could accept that was to do exactly as he said. I did everything he told me to do, which was quite a lot sometimes . . . quite a lot . . .”
Marianne sat up and leaned forward, propping herself up on her elbow.
“But Filip, aren’t you getting a bit carried away? You could be imagining it all, you know, I mean about that man looking so much like you.”
First published in Holland in 1958, this edition has recently been translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke. It traces the story of Henri Osewoudt, a seven-months baby who was dropped, by his mother, ‘into the po one day, along with her stools.’ Henri had a pale girlish face and wispy fair hair, he never needed to shave. His cheeks were soft, fleshy and smooth. His voice was high-pitched. And after he took up judo his feet grew wide and muscular in the arches so they resembled suction pads. Normal shoes no longer fitted him, he had to have special ones made to measure.
Henri Osewoudt’s mentally deranged mother killed her husband when Henri was still a child. Henri went to live with an uncle and cousin and several years later, when Holland was occupied by the Nazis, the young man, who had by that time taken over the tobacconist shop of his father, was drawn into the Resistance movement by a shadowy figure named Dorbeck, who was Henri’s almost exact double.
Strange? Yes, incredible, Kafkaesque, a novel about a paranoic or a psychopath, or perhaps just a simple man, and yet at the same time it is a fast moving thriller with quite exact descriptions of events and characters, and always emotionally engaging, urging the reader forward page after page, chapter after chapter.
Osewoudt may be on the right side, or he may not, he is always an ambiguous figure and the undercurrent of the narrative takes on the character of a metaphysical mystery at the same time as it gives us a straight-forward wartime thriller.
Willem Frederik Hermans, who died in 1995, was a Dutch geologist who spent most of his writing life in Paris. He is regarded as one of the major post-war novelists in the Netherlands, a shy, existentialist loner, who refused the Dutch state prize for literature, the P.C. Hooftprijs, in 1971.
The title of the novel makes reference to Damocles, who was a courtier of Dionysius II of Syracuse, a tyrant of the 4th century bc. Damocles believed that Dionysius was truly fortunate and asked to switch places with him for a day, so he could taste first hand what power was like. A banquet was held, where Damocles was waited upon like a king, tasting all the comforts and privileges of the tyrant. But at the end of the meal he looked up and saw a sharpened sword hanging by a single piece of horsehair directly above his head. Immediately, he lost all taste for the fine foods and beautiful boys and asked leave of Dionysius, saying he no longer wished to be so fortunate.
I really enjoyed this novel and was happy to be introduced to WF Hermans’ work. At almost 400 pages it seemed rather intimidating at first, but the mixture of suspense and the bizarre captured my imagination and I found myself reaching for it whenever I had a moment to spare.
This review is based on an uncorrected proof copy supplied by the publishers, Harvill Secker
WF Herman’s Beyond Sleep is reviewed here.