I must confess that I expected The Darkroom of Damocles to be a dark and difficult book. The title, the description of the author as “one of the most important Western European authors to emerge from the postwar period”, and that oh so dark cover all suggested that to me.
But I was wrong. This is a terribly readable book, simply, clearly and very well written, and it is very easy to keep turning the pages to see what happens. It’s almost a case of serious literary meets gripping thriller. And I should also mention that it’s a book to make you think, and go on thinking for some time after you’ve put it down.
The Darkroom of Damocles is the story of one man’s life, and how it is changed by the Nazi occupation of Holland.
Henri Osewoudt didn’t have the best start in life. An only child, he grew up in his parent’s tobacconist’s shop until, when he was twelve years-old, his mother killed his father and was committed to an asylum. The young Osewoudt was taken in by his aunt and uncle, and soon found himself ensnare by his older, unprepossessing cousin. She saw, in the worryingly passive young man, a chance of a husband, a business, and a home of her own.
Osewoudt was short, fair, unable to grow a beard, and he had a girlish high-pitched voice. And he continued to be utterly passive. And so, as he was half a centimetre too short for military service, when war broke out in Europe he was back in the tobacconist’s shop, with a wife he was none too sure he wanted, and his mother released into their care.
The catalyst for change is a man named Dorbeck. He has a startling resemblance to Osewoudt, save that where Osewoudt is painted in shades of grey Dorbeck is painted is vivid colours. Dorbeck didn’t let his half centimetre deficiency keep him out of the military, and he has no lack of ambition, or confidence.
He speaks of the importance of the Dutch resistance, and he draws Osewoudt in. First there are simple tasks – developing films, mailing packages – but gradually the complexity and the danger of the tasks escalates. Osewoudt is pulled away from his home and his family and into another world. And he becomes a different man. A man rather like Dorbeck …
Eventually Osewoudt falls into the hands of the Gestapo. He escapes, he is recaptured, he escapes again in the final days of the war, and manages to reach a liberated area.
He expects to be received as a hero, a brave freedom fighter, but instead he is arrested as a traitor. And he cannot prove his innocence: Dorbeck has vanished without trace, a worryingly large number of those he came into contact with have been denounced and killed, and none of the handful that are left will come forward and speak for him.
Is Osewoudt telling the truth? Are there gaps in his story? Different interpretations of events?
Might he be a double agent? Might he be an unwitting pawn of the occupying forces? Or might he be delusional, and might Dorbeck be simply a figment of his imagination?
I pondered all of these questions as Osewoudt became more and more desperate, and his situation became more and more Kafkaesque.
I changed my mind many times, and the more I think the less certain I become.
But of one thing I am certain: I can’t do it justice, but I can say that this book is more than worthy of the many plaudits it has received.
Translated by Ina Rilke
I read The Darkroom of Damocles for A Month of Dutch Literature , organised by Iris on Books.
It was a wonderful idea, and it pulled me towards some intriguing books I might not of picked up otherwise. I was a little disappointed in Shadow Sister, but I was stunned by the Darkroom of Damocles. And I have remembered that I have an unread book by Hella S Haase in a box in the attic that I must pick up soon, but maybe not until I’ve made room on my library ticket for Cees Nooteboom …
(I am horribly behind and I know I have a good few posts to read and more books to discover, because my internet time is still rather limited. It’s a long and painful story, so I’ll just say that I still have no wireless connection, and my wired connection that is not in a good part of the house for thinking and writing. One day it will be sorted out ….)
And finally I must thank Lizzy Siddal, as I acquired my copy of The Darkroom of Damocles in her very generous giveaway. I now understand why she praised it so highly.
I’d like to pass my copy on again, for someone else to read, and hopefully write about too. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, just leave a comment saying that you’re interested before noon on Sunday.