If 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.
This is my first Gerbrand Bakker. I’ve been aware of a good deal of interest and acclaim around his books for a while but somehow hadn’t got around to him. With its title and glorious blue-skied cover promising summer it seemed appropriate to pick up his new novel on one of the several miserably cold, wet and windy days that began our own June in the UK. It’s set largely on a Saturday in a small Dutch village but at its centre is Queen Julianna’s visit on June 17th 1969 nearly forty years before, a day of celebration which turned into tragedy.
It opens with the Queen reflecting on the many places she’s visited, the inappropriateness of a shrimp buffet at 10 a.m. and her irritation with the civil servant detailed to look after her not to mention the artist constantly sketching her in preparation for sculpting a bust. Just as she’s about to leave, ceremonial duty discharged, a young woman arrives clutching her two-year-old daughter. The Queen greets her, lightly touching the child’s cheek. Later that day an accident will leave the little girl’s family bereft. The rest of Bakker’s novel follows another sweltering June day largely through the Kaan family, beginning with Anna, the two-year-old’s mother – now a grandmother – who has regularly taken herself off to the straw loft on the rundown family farm since 1969, ignoring all attempts to talk her down. The latest trigger is her golden wedding anniversary celebration, a family trip to the zoo which proved to be far from an unalloyed joy.
There are no fancy descriptive passages littered with similes and metaphors in Bakker’s writing: it’s clean and plain but richly evocative for all that. His narrative shifts smoothly from character to character, unfolding events through internal monologues filled with memories interwoven with prosaic observations on family life and the state of the farm, the most effective of which is five-year-old Dieke’s with her questions teasing out what happened to her aunt. Small details slip in through these different points of view coalescing into a picture of that other June day. There’s a great deal of quiet humour underlying the heartache – the poor old dog is thrown into the ditch by just about every member of the family to cool him down, each of them thinking that they’re the only one who’s done it, while the Queen reflects ’I am sixty years old… …For more that twenty years I have been sitting in my official capacity on lavatories like this. How long can anyone bear it?’ How long indeed! I gather from Twitter that June’s reception has not been entirely positive but as it’s my first Bakker I’ve nothing to compare it with: suffice to say it won’t be my last. Compliments to the translator, too – my bet is that it’s harder to translate plain and – apparently – simple prose while retaining its subtlety than it is to produce a flowery interpretation but David Colmer pulls it off beautifully.