An Untouched House from Willem Frederik Hermans covers a brief period in 1944 during WWII. The novel opens with the protagonist, a Dutchman, one of a group of partisans, trudging through the ravaged countryside when the men stop for a rest. Immediately the author sets the scene for war as spectacle when the narrator notes a dogfight that rages in the skies above:
All of the combatants seemed to be taking it easy as if the war was a large sick body that had just been given a shot of morphine. The only thing happening: a high altitude dogfight, two against one. I watched it, a blade of dry grass stuck between my teeth. Like skywriters the fighter pilots were drawing a pattern of white loops on the blue background, as if for our entertainment and no other reason.
There’s also a sense of chaos. The narrator cannot communicate with anyone else in his unit as the partisan band is composed of mainly Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians. Even though the Germans are the common enemy, after a friendly fire incident, the Russians hauled off, and executed, five of the partisans. As the raggle taggle band of men, thirsty and tired, continue to forge ahead, they enter a spa town which appears to be abandoned. After slaughtering any Germans who stand in their way, some of the partisans enter a bar and start drinking. The narrator isn’t allowed to join them; he’s shoved away with the words “Booby Trap” shouted at him repeatedly. And so the narrator keeps walking. He discovers a house, standing in the middle of a “sloping, dark green law,” an oasis of calm, civilization and peace, that appears to be untouched by the war.
Imagine never having been anywhere other than here, or having conquered this house, this hill, as the solution to a riddle.
He wipes his feet on the mat, and with a feeling of reverence, he enters the house. There’s a pot of soup simmering on the stove. Whoever lived in the house left in a hurry:
Draped over a sofa was a lady’s coat. It spoke like the objects in detective stories. It said: although I am expensive I am lying here carelessly bunched together. Someone who was about to put me on and step through the door dropped me here. She’s noticed she’d forgotten something.
The temptation just to take a few moments of peace and quiet … to linger … and to have a bath is simply too much, and so the narrator strips off his uniform and takes a bath.
I stood before a mirror in which I could see myself from head to toe to shave. If I had a room lined entirely with mirrors I could stay in it forever without getting bored like Robinson Crusoe on his island.
Those who fight wars have an entirely different reality from those who stay at home. This is especially true for the wealthy, and whoever lived in this house obviously led a pleasant life of plenty right up until the moment they fled. The contrast between the life of the narrator and the life he steps into is startling, so it’s perfectly understandable when he lingers.
This is a dark, brutal, haunting portrayal of war. Human nature is reduced to its most basic level: survival, but there’s also great cruelty here, a confusion of loyalties and values. Many war novels emphasize camaraderie between men, especially WWI novels, but there’s no camaraderie here. The partisans are fighting the Germans, but that’s as far as the ties go. There are no relationships between the men, only aggression, and the aggression, when it occurs is vile, explosive, base and primal.
Translated by David Colmer