"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 26, 2014

The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans

Together with Harry Mulisch (1927-2010) and Cees Nooteboom (1933), Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) forms the formidable triumvirate of postwar Dutch literature. Abroad, Hermans is the most neglected of the three, probably because he wrote his greatest work in the 1950s and 1960s, when translations from Dutch literature were rare, in contrast to the other two writers who peaked in the 1990s to 2000s.  But in Holland Hermans is generally seen as the best 20th century author, comparable to Multatuli in the 19th c.

Willem Frederik Hermans was an adolescent in Amsterdam during WWII. The war made an indelible impression on him, and he often chooses the war as backdrop for his novels. This is not for historical reasons, but because war is the environment in which, according to Hermans' existentialist philosophy, malice and misunderstanding, as well as the pointlessness of our existence, can best be brought to the surface. In wartime, society sheds it thin veneer of culture, humans loose their pretense of humanity. The world, for the atheist Hermans, is nothing else than an originally "sadistic universe."

[W.F. Hermans in his study in 1977 - Photo Wikipedia]

The Darkroom of Damocles (De donkere kamer van Damokles), written in 1958, is no exception. Set in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation and its aftermath, it tells the story of Henri Osewoudt, a young man who performs secret missions against the Gestapo, getting his instructions from a mysterious stranger called Dorbeck. Dorbeck, who remains a shadowy figure, bears a close resemblance to Osewoudt, but as a positive mirror image - everything that is effeminate and weak in Osewoudt, is strong and manly in Dorbeck, everything that is passive, is active. "I had the feeling I was an extension of him, or even part of him. When I first set eyes on him I thought: this is the sort of man I should have been." Osewoudt is a man without beard growth and a high squeaky voice who is just an insignificant tobacconist in a small town near The Hague, living with his mentally ill mother and an unattractive wife who is also his niece. He has no self esteem at all.

It is probably because of that insignificance that Osewoudt wants to become a "hero" - even though the circumstances are more than a little ambiguous - including in the first place the reliability of his task giver, Dorbeck. The tasks given to Osewoudt escalate in danger, from developing photographs in his basement darkroom to helping an English agent to a safe house and finally, killing several presumed informers and traitors.

Here Osewoudt impresses the reader as an ugly, amoral man, without any passion or empathy towards his fellow beings. He performs his killings blindly, like a robot, without any reflection. When Osewoudt discovers that his wife has denounced him to the Germans, he murders her too. But are the people he kills really traitors? Is Osewoudt a Resistance hero or just a stupid little man who has been fooled by lies? Or is he a psychopath driven by delusions (as a doctor who visits him in prison surmises)? In wartime, the thin veneer of civilization and humanity breaks down, and it becomes impossible to detect good from evil, right from wrong.

Having survived capture by the Germans, at the end of the war Osewoudt is again captured, now by the Dutch. He cannot prove that he really was in the Resistance and is considered as a collaborator with the Germans. Dorbeck has evaporated - Osewoudt even cannot prove that Dorbeck, his doppelganger, ever existed. When he develops a roll of film that should show a photograph of the two of them together, it turns out that the film is empty. He flees from prison and is shot on the run.

The conclusion the novel reaches is that it is impossible to know the world, and impossible to understand other human beings. It is also impossible to justify oneself to others. At the end of the book, also the reader has no way of knowing who or what Dorbeck is or if he existed at all. On purpose, a logical interpretation of the novel has been blocked by the author.

[Hermans in 1986 - Wikipedia]

The title of the book refers to the darkroom where Osewoudt tries to develop a film given him by Dorbeck. He fails, but later will work successfully in a darkroom for a Resistance group. To compensate for the loss of the film, Osewoudt buys a Leica camera and tries to take pictures of military objects. It is this camera that contains the unsuccessful film with the photo of Dorbeck. And "Damocles" of course refers to the "the Sword of Damocles," an allusion to imminent and ever-present peril, which hangs constantly above Osewoudt in the dark room of his life.

The Darkroom of Damocles, written in a spare, relentless style, is a starkly existentialist novel about the human condition, bringing to mind Kafka or Celine. But it also has a complicated, thrilling and fast moving plot and often reads like a suspense novel. It also contains enough humor to make the dark journey bearable. Important is also the realistic quality of the novel: all street names are given exactly, as are names and locations of buildings, etc. - Hermans himself walked around all locations and took pictures.

Interestingly, a similar morally ambiguous situation occurs in the film Black Book (Zwartboek) by the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, another story about WWII. Both may have been indebted to the Englandspiel, a historical counter intelligence operation launched by the Germans, during which the codes of captured agents were used to fool the Allies and indeed create doubt of who was on whose side. Hermans was one of the first to question the prevalent black-and-white ideology in Holland about WWII, in which every Dutchman had been in the Resistance and saved hundreds of Anne Franks.

Willem Frederik Hermans was born in Amsterdam and studied Physical Geography. In 1958, he became Reader in this subject at the University of Groningen. He had already started writing and publishing in magazines at a young age. His polemic and provocative style, based on the sturdy logical reasoning of the scientist that he was, led to a court case as early as 1952 (he was accused of having insulted the Catholics in his novel I am Always Right, in which he wrote that "Catholics breed like rabbits"). Hermans was always contrary, in opposition, like Multatuli before him - he is the greatest writer of polemical essays of the Netherlands, in books with titles as Mandarijnen op Zwavelzuur (Mandarins on Sulphuric Acid, 1964). Interviewers came with shaking knees to his door, fearing his biting cynicism and bouts of anger. He broke many undeserved reputations of writers, critics and other prominent persons, fighting the narrow-mindedness and bigotedness of Dutch society in the first two decades after WWII. After quarreling with his colleagues at the university, who said he spent too much time writing and neglected his teaching duties, in 1973 he quit his job and became a free writer, first settling in Paris and later in Brussels.

In order to survive people have to create their own reality, Hermans says - and it is inevitable that all these different models of reality will collide. As a writer, he considered language as essential to create order out of this chaos, a problem he studied in depth in his essays on Wittgenstein.

Hermans greatest novels and novellas often address WWII: De tranen der acacia's (The Tears of the Acacias, 1949), Het Behouden Huis (The Safe House, 1951), De donkere kamer van Damocles (The Darkroom of Damocles, 1958) and Herinneringen van een Engelbewaarder (Memories of a Guardian Angel, 1971). The reality that Hermans' characters create for themselves, is always equivocal for the reader. His protagonists try to impose their truths upon reality, to make the facts fit their personal framework, but in the end they either perish in the chaos or are left in disillusionment. His above mentioned novel, Ik heb altijd gelijk (I am Always Right, 1951) is about the failed Dutch military action in Indonesia and the terrible bigotry in a Holland plagued by a chronic housing shortage. His short stories, collected in books with meaningful titles as Paranoia or Moedwil en misverstand (Malice and Misunderstanding, 1948) and Een Wonderkind of een Total Loss (A Child Prodigy or a Total Loss, 1967) have a surrealistic tendency. A great non-war novel is Nooit meer slapen (Beyond Sleep, 1962), about a geological expedition to the North Cape, which ends in failure and even disaster - it is exceptional among Hermans work because of its great dose of humor. In his later novels, Hermans is less dark, but moves on to satire. Onder Professoren (Among Professors, 1975) is the best satire I know of the academic establishment, and also of the leftist political foolishness of the 1970s.

Everything in Hermans' rich oeuvre is subordinate to the author's pessimistic philosophy. To quote a final statement:
"Evil is a disguise of death. The fact we all must die, causes the universe to be lopsided. Everything ends with the individual death. Therefore "evil" always wins in the end, one disappears, one goes to pieces. That is the main theme of all my work." 

The Darkroom of Damocles was translated to English in 1962 by Roy Edwards, and again in 2007 by Ina Rilke. 
It was adapted into the 1963 film Like Two Drops of Water, directed by Fons Rademakers.
English translation by Ina Rilke at the Overlook Press. Dutch original published by Van Oorschot.