What you see is often not what you see. In wartime, borders vanish, buildings, people, loyalties, trust. Vanish. Morality, ethics, the truth. Vanish. Not for everyone, at all times. But for many, and for most of the time. The god of ambiguity loves war. Perhaps as much as he loves love. As much as he loves the way people alter their behavior when faced with moral dilemmas. Strife, fear, hatred, betrayal. War feeds all of that. More often than not, we want to see things in black and white, but we really get shades. Or think we do. Blurring, in and out of focus, sharp over here, dull and fuzzy over there.
If war has music, it thunders all too often. It shrieks and rises into crescendos and then tanks. Collapses of its own weight. Too many sharps and flats. Too much atonality. But even there, even in the ear, there is ambiguity. Language is ambiguous. What you thought you heard was not. What they said was not what they said and so on. What you heard you thought ahead of the gate and applied it to the words that came later.
It wasn’t what you thought.
In Willem Frederik Hermans’ brilliant novel, The Darkroom of Damocles, ambiguity rears its ugly head like an enraged god and crushes multitudes. Set in Holland during the German occupation, Hermans tells the story of one Henri Osewoudt, a tobacconist who gets caught up in the Dutch Resistance. Caught up in it because a British agent, Dorbeck, appears at his shop one day and sets this in motion. Why does Osewoudt take orders from Dorbeck, who never really proves who he is? Because when Osewoudt sees him he sees himself. The two are nearly twins.
Photos disappear and reappear. Negatives have nothing on them when developed, or when the development is botched. Osewoudt commits murder for Dorbeck, is imprisoned by the Germans and then the Dutch. All things are elusive for him. He chases. Is chased. Searches for. Is searched for. Dorbeck becomes his goal and his raison d’etre.
When things are underground, secretive, violently secretive, it’s easy to choose the wrong thing, the wrong people, be mistaken, make mistakes that kill. Dorbeck may or may not be real, though Hermans presents him as more than real for Osewoudt. Hermans throws in another curve for us when he paints the picture of Osewoudt’s mother, who saw things and was considered mad. Did Henri inherit some of this? There is another piece of jarring psychology in play. Henri is short, without facial hair, and has a high voice. He sees in Dorbeck the man he should have been. He imagines being like Dorbeck. The dark hair, the potential beard, the deep voice.
Hermans is considered one of the greatest Dutch novelists of the 20th century. The Darkroom of Damocles was first published in 1958. Overlook Press published a new translation by Ina Rilke last year. I recommend it highly.