AN UNTOUCHED HOUSE BY WILLEM FREDEIK HERMANS, TRANSLATED BY DAVID COLMER
Willem Frederik Hermans’ An Untouched House provides a wrenching glimpse of a Dutch soldier’s experience several years into World War II. The atmosphere of the novella is surreal in its believable disorientation. The sparse but precise prose captures a sense of desolation, a meaninglessness at the heart of the war that emerges in innumerable casual atrocities, from murder to the destruction of art. The unnamed narrator’s psychological trauma manifests as confusion and resignation layered over his raw and equally unnamable longing. “I no longer knew how tennis was played,” he relates. “I didn’t know what the net, the white lines, the tall white chair, that heavy roller in the corner meant.”
The narrator attempts to reconcile barbarity with the veneer of civilization that he discovers in a remarkably, almost miraculously, untouched house in the middle of a bombarded European town. Inside the house are wonders foreign to the narrator—lush furs, a piano, hot water. How can such a place exist? As the narrator unravels the mysteries of the house, the truths he learns are neither reassuring nor beautiful. The line between war and culture, violence and peace, is indistinct, an illusion ultimately incapable of concealing the interdependence of the two, and the artificiality of our loyalty to either.
—Review by Sara Ramey