An Untouched House – Willem Frederik Hermans (tr. David Colmer)

I have been having a good run with Archipelago Books lately, having read and loved Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga and Difficult Light by Tomás Gonzélez. It only made sense to read more of their books for #ReadIndies month and An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans fit the bill perfectly. This is my second book by Hermans, I was previously quite impressed by Beyond Sleep. Hermans does have a flair for farce as was evident in both these books.

An Untouched House is a spare, taut war thriller sprinkled with doses of absurd comedy that considerably heightens its narrative power.

The novella is set during the waning months of the Second World War, where the intermittent fighting between the Nazis and the Soviets is still going strong.

Our unnamed narrator is a Dutchman who hasn’t seen his homeland for the past four years. Having escaped the German camps quite a few times, our narrator is now a part of a group of partisan soldiers led by the Soviets.

These partisans come from an assortment of countries – the group comprises Spaniards, Bulgarians, Romanians et al. The only common thread that binds them together is their fight against the Germans. Otherwise, these partisans are as different as chalk and cheese. Language being a big barrier, most of them do not understand each other and often orders given are misunderstood.

Our unnamed narrator is confronted with a similar predicament. Not understanding the orders of his sergeant, our narrator forges ahead and finds himself in an abandoned spa resort town. The exact location of this town is not revealed to the reader, and it doesn’t really matter. Moving on further, he comes across a massive house that appears empty.

I realised that this would be the first time in a very long while that I had entered a real house, a genuine home.

For our weary and disgruntled narrator, worn down by years of continuous fighting punctuated with periods of imprisonment, the cleanliness and warmth of the house is a miracle. Its cocoon-like environment is in stark contrast to the war outside and the noise, death and destruction it implies.

Some doctors explain love at first sight as arising not from what you see but from what you smell. Humans are so sure they can’t trust others that things that are said or shown never convince. Smell – the weakest over a distance, able to be suppressed by perfume but never defeated – cannot dissemble because it is constantly being produced. Stench is everywhere, unavoidable. Only stench tells the truth.

For the first time in many years, our narrator is offered a glimpse of a world before the war, and he is now zealous about seeking refuge here.

He discards his dirty soldier clothes and immerses himself in the luxuriousness of a bath and clean towels, while all around him the war rages on with its barrage of bombs and fires.

When the Germans re-capture the spa town, they install themselves in the house, when our narrator introduces himself as the owner of the house. Having donned on the clothes of the actual owner, the Germans have no way of ascertaining our narrator’s true identity and the side he is fighting for.

And yet, our narrator knows his position is precarious. First things first, he needs to thoroughly explore and familiarise himself with the house to douse any suspicions.

A library full of books on fish and a locked room – features beyond the grasp of our narrator, only deepens the aura of mystery surrounding the house.

All the books were about fish. That meant the owner was a fish fancier! I knew something, but I didn’t want to know anything, not his name, not what he looked like, nothing! He had never existed, that was the truth! He had been the intruder, not me. He would be dead at the end of the war; I would stay here forever.

And then the real owner of the house turns up…

An Untouched House, then, is a study of the horrific impact of war and the primal response that it induces – survival. Despite the rampant confusion, our narrator’s faculties of observation continue to work with icy precision, and that the house where he takes shelter becomes the story’s second main character.

For the narrator, the empty house is akin to an oasis in a desert and he is ready to go to any lengths to preserve this, including adapting to any role that will ensure his survival. The novella also succeeds in imparting a core message – the folly, chaos and pointlessness of war. The notion that war is a highly organised affair seems inherently bizarre as this novella progresses, especially since murder and mayhem takes centrestage.

At less than 100 pages, An Untouched House pulses and throbs with dramatic tension. In a writing style that is forensic yet mesmerizing, Hermans, in his unique way, confronts us with the idea of the violent absurdity of war and its terrible consequences for those unwittingly involved.

The Death of Murat Idrissi – Tommy Wieringa (tr. Sam Garrett)

I first came across The Death of Murat Idrissi when it was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.

Two factors piqued my interest in the book. It was short – always a plus point because well written short novels pack quite a punch. And it touched upon the topic of immigration – contemporary, given the times we live in.

And although the novella did not make it to the shortlist, I was very, very impressed. I have been thinking about it ever since.

Death of Murat Idrissi

Ilham and Thouraya, two young Dutch women, have been vacationing in Morocco, the land of their forefathers. It is an extended holiday that has now come to an end.

Right from the start, the two girls are forced to come to terms with the fact that the freedoms they enjoyed in Europe as women, does not hold much ground in Morocco. In Morocco, women travelling alone are frowned upon, and the girls have no choice but to rely on a man to take them around. The man is Saleh.

Saleh, meanwhile, has his own agenda that he wants to push forward, and he uses the girls as bait. Saleh is knee deep in illegal activities involving smuggling Moroccans to Europe. He takes the girls to the home of the very poor Murat Idrissi, another Moroccan looking to escape the confines of his surroundings with hopes of a better life in the European continent.

Saleh proposes using the girls’ car as a mode of transporting Murat across continents. Ilham, in particular, strongly objects to this dangerous mission, fearing getting caught by officials. Thouraya is more willing to go along. But increasing persistence of Murat’s grandmother and the lure of money weaken Ilham’s resolve and she relents.

That is just the beginning of their problems. It is hardly a spoiler to say that Murat dies en route (as is evinced from the title). Saleh abandons them. The girls barely have any money, they have to travel all those miles from Southern Spain to the Netherlands in their car, and there is a corpse in the boot.

Could this really be them, whose lives have turned into a nightmare at the snap of a finger? There is a dead boy in the back of their car, they’re going to end up in prison, everything they had in terms of hope, expectations is ending right here.

Does it end badly?

The author Tommy Weirenga is much more interested in how the girls confront the crisis they are in rather than its resolution.

He uses the tragedy as a vehicle to examine the roots of Ilham and Thouraya and the complexities of the immigrant experience.

Although Ilham and Thouraya are born in the Netherlands and are therefore Dutch, they have a sense of not really belonging to either culture.

Even though they were in their parents’ homeland and staying with relatives, even though they identified with the people there, they were not Moroccans. That is what they had in common. That they were seen as tourists. That they had to pay tourist prices. They were the children of two kingdoms, they carried the green passport of the Royaume du Maroc and the red-lead one of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but in both countries they were, above all, foreigners.

Gradually we get a glimpse of their backgrounds, of how both sets of parents were immigrants themselves having navigated the change in continents successfully. Of how an accident with their car while holidaying in Morocco drained the girls’ finances, and so they had to team up with Saleh.

Thouraya and Ilham have different personalities. Thouraya is more confident of the two, both in her overall outlook towards life as well as in her sexual encounters. Ilham, meanwhile, worries about circumstances that will compel her to accept a traditional marriage despite her attempts to break away from precisely that very thing. And yet, there is a common thread that binds both the girls. And that is the shared feeling of being out of place in their adopted European country.

At barely 102 pages, Wieringa has composed quite a powerful novella. There is a hypnotic and dreamy quality to his prose packed with sufficient tension to propel the narrative forward. Not a single word is wasted. And in a taut offering of this kind, he has thrown in many ingredients to chew upon – the question of identity, the dilemmas of immigrants in everyday life, the dreams of hoping for a better life in Europe, and how those dreams in many ways do not always come to fruition.

Then two planes drilled their way into the heart of the Western world.

She watched as the little opportunity, the crack that had posed a possibility, sealed over; people looked away and kept their distance, as though her body had, from one day to the next, become a hostile object. The discussion ground to a halt, the bellicose language of the daily news trickled into everyday life. Either you are with us, said the most powerful man in the world, or you are with the terrorists. The plans, his words – thy broke her world, the whole world, in two, into ‘we over here’ and ‘them over there.’ And Ilham became ‘them.’