The Darkroom of Damocles by W.F. Hermans

13/09/07, The Sunday Telegraph

W.F. Hermans has taken a long time arriving to the Anglophone world. An English translation of his 1965 comic novel, Beyond Sleep, was published last year. The Darkroom of Damocles, published in the Netherlands in 1958, was first issued in an English translation in 1962 although Harvill Secker would like us to believe that this new translation is the first time the work is being made available in English. Along with Harry Mulisch and the (much younger) Cees Nooteboom, he forms the formidable triumvirate of Dutch literature, so why he has been the neglected one so far in the trio seems a bit baffling.

Set during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and its immediate aftermath, it tells the story of Henri Osewoudt, a tobacconist whose mentally ill mother kills her husband when he is twelve. Seven years later, as the Germans arrive, a mysterious stranger called Dorbeck walks into his shop and starts assigning him to top-secret anti-Gestapo tasks orchestrated by London. Dorbeck, strangely, is the mirror image of Osewoudt with key things, such as hair and timbre of voice, reversed. As Osewoudt’s wife (also his first cousin) remarks to her husband, ‘You look as much like a pudding that hasn’t set properly looks like … a pudding that has set properly’. The tasks escalate in danger and seriousness, from developing photographs in a basement darkroom to organizing safe houses to killing informers and traitors. Through all this, Dorbeck remains shadowy and elusive, with whiffs of Bulgakov’s Satan about him.

When the war ends and Osewoudt is captured as a traitor, he cannot prove that he was really a Resistance hero because proof rests on finding Dorbeck, who turns out to be untraceable, as does any material evidence of his past sporadic contacts with Osewoudt. Does his döppelganger really exist? The novel becomes starkly existentialist, bringing to mind Camus and even the Sartre of Les Chemins de la Liberté. But Hermans’s style is so spare, so desiccated even, that it develops a hefty charge of static around it. Crackling with tension at the same time as a philosophical cynicism – or perhaps, just an uninterested amorality – about human motives and actions, this is an edgy, uneasy novel about the human condition in its effortless guise as a thriller. And at the very end, it is difficult not to feel for Osewoudt the same compassion we reserve for Meursault of L’Étranger.