I would like to compile, for my own personal reassurance, a list of moments when admired authors have shown that they too struggle with difficult books. There was Martin Amis’s review of Don Quixote which he said “suffers from one serious flaw – that of outright unreadability.” Or Seamus Deane, Booker-shortlisted novelist and critic, whose introduction to the Penguin Modern Classic edition of Finnegans Wake opens: “The first thing to say about Finnegans Wake is that it is, in an important sense, unreadable.” Now, on the back cover of the Harvill (hardback-only: again) edition of Willem Fredrik Hermans’ The Darkroom of Damocles, we have Milan Kundera, admitting that he was “intimidated” by the novel’s length. Milan: don’t you worry. Just stick with me and everything will be all right.
He was right though. The first thing to say about The Darkroom of Damocles [1958, tr. 2007 by Ina Rilke] is that it is, in an important sense, too bloody long. But it is very readable. I had high hopes for this book as Beyond Sleep, Hermans’ only other novel in English translation, was one of my favourite books of 2008. It has been praised by reliable voices such as Lizzy Siddal and William Rycroft. And Milan Kundera.
It takes us through the life of Henri Ousewoudt, “a diminutive freak, a toad reared upright” who is orphaned when his mentally ill mother kills his father. Henri moves in with his aunt and uncle, and ends up marrying his cousin Ria, who is as physically unappealing as he is (“her teeth did not enhance her mouth, nor did they make it look fierce, they merely clamped it shut, rather like the clasp on a purse … her chortling reminded him of the squeak of chamois leather on a wet windowpane”). All this is brilliantly sketched, with enough omissions to make the reader work a little, and by page twenty we are into the main body of the story, where Henri has taken over his uncle’s tobacconist shop, and has grown into a man who “did nothing, wanted nothing, left everything to chance”.
War is raging, the Nazis have occupied the Netherlands, and Henri finds himself doing patriotic favours for a stranger named Dorbeck, who looks exactly like him, “the way a photo negative looks like the positive” – Dorbeck is dark and hairy, where Henri is babyishly fair and has never needed to shave. Here Hermans settles into a much more detailed telling, which is where he began to lose me. The accounts of Henri’s wartime activities, chance meetings with Dorbeck and captures and escapes, are vital in defining Henri’s relationship with the world (“Things just happen. Nothing I ever do makes a difference”), but they don’t half go on.
Henri has no allegiance to anyone, and it is his lack of agency which will lead to his troubles in the second half of the book, as first Nazis and then Allies consider him a murderer and a traitor. By failing to subscribe to an ideology, he cannot be anyone’s hero (“What is a hero? Someone who is careless and gets away with it”), even when he dyes his hair and looks like Dorbeck. It is Henri’s initial desire to impress Dorbeck which leads both to his discovery of his own strength and stamina, and to his downfall. When he dyes his hair to disguise himself from the Nazis, he recognises that he now resembles Dorbeck entirely, but even though it helps him find love, it doesn’t “make me the man Dorbeck is. We’re alike, but not the same.”
A ghostly vision entered his mind. The war was over, and he and Marianne were strolling hand in hand in some faraway countryside. Then they saw Dorbeck. Without a word, she went off with Dorbeck and left him standing there. No goodbye, no turning round to wave, just one quick look over the shoulder, only to call back to him: I knew what the man I wanted looked like. Forgive me for thinking it was you.
Whether Dorbeck really exists or not is the central question of the second half of the novel. All we know is that he really exists in Henri’s mind, a sort of Tyler Durden figure.
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, which was quite a lot sometimes … quite a lot …
It is these existential questions and the cloud of unclarity that surrounds them, rather than the hard detail of the thriller elements, which drove me to the end of the book. Though The Darkroom of Damocles is full of action, it was the parts where nothing was happening that I liked best.