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.