An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans (transl. David Colmer): The folly of war

Cover imageIf you want an introduction to literature from around the world, much of it hardly known to English speakers but often celebrated in its country of origin, you might like to keep an eye on Pushkin Press’s list. Willem Frederik Hermans’ An Untouched House is a fine example. Set towards the end of the Second World War, it sees an unnamed soldier stumble into an abandoned palatial house with farcical consequences.

Our Dutch narrator spends much of his time trying to decipher the orders fired at him by the man in charge of the shambling band of Red Army partisans to which he belongs. One summer’s day in a German spa town under bombardment, he sets of purposefully to fulfil yet another set of instructions he doesn’t understand, finding his way into a beautifully furnished house, abandoned yet with soup simmering in the kitchen. He convinces himself that he’s to check the house for booby traps but enjoys the luxury of a long bath, shaves to the sounds of bombs dropping and peruses the contents of the wardrobe as vehicles race past the house. Before long he’s settled in, passing himself off as the owner’s son when German officers politely requisition the house. Soon a routine is established and a cat adopted, then the house’s owner turns up.

Published in 1950 in his native Holland, Hermans’ book is a stark, funny and graphic exploration of the folly of war, a favourite theme of his so Cees Nooteboom’s enlightening Afterword tells us. In clipped, crisp prose, Hermans steers his readers through the confusion, chaos and constant threat that accompany battle into a brief haven of peace. The comic set-up, bordering on slapstick as our quick-thinking narrator adopts whatever persona gets him out of trouble, makes the ending of this brief novella all the more bleak. Bravo Pushkin Press for seeking out yet another international gem.

9 thoughts on “An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans (transl. David Colmer): The folly of war”

  1. Oh I really like the sound of this one, I love the idea of the abandoned house, soup still simmering in the kitchen. It seems there is an air of mystery about the house and its owner as well as farce. A fun read.

  2. This sounds hilarious! And still with something to say, which is always compelling. Pushkin Press are one those publishers whose books I will pick up just because they are the publisher – that’s enough of a recommendation for me 🙂

  3. Dear readers,

    I’m a collector of translated books from the Dutch writer W.F. Hermans. I’m looking for a advance reading copy of ‘An untouched house’, UK edition.
    Can someone help me? Thanks!!

    Gerrit Bosch
    Berkenstraat 15 – c
    8924 BX Leeuwarden
    The Netherlands

  4. Dear Susan Osborne,

    They told me that bound proof copies are sent out to reviewers and booksellers only. So I hope that I can get an example in the future.



  5. Only recently did I see my first real-life Pushkin press book on the shelves of a local bookstore. They are lovely little things, aren’t they! I can totally see where they would be addictive. And in this case – long baths and bombs? – how could one resist?

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