The Darkroom of Damocles: thoughts and a giveaway

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.

Why do People Keep Having Such Wonderful Ideas?!

I’m not complaining really, it’s just that whenever I think the pile of books that I want to read right now is under control somebody comes up with a plan or scheme so wonderful that I rush to the bookshelves and the library to find more to join them.

So let’s take things chronologically:

In June Iris on Books hosts A Month of Dutch Literature.

When I read Iris’s first post my thoughts turned to Dutch books I might have read. I could only think of three, all very good crime novels. It seemed wrong that I knew nothing more of the literature of a country not so very far ago, and so I did a little investigation. And luck was with me, I won a copy of The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans from Lizzy Siddal. She describes it as her favourite Dutch novel ever and a book that she could happily reread. I have only read the cover notes and the opening, but I am already beginning to understand why she rates it so highly. I also have a Dutch novel lined up for letter V in my Crime Fiction Alphabet in the middle of the month, and I’m on the lookout for other books and hoping that other readers will point me towards more.

And then there’s Paris in July, hosted for a second year by Karen at Book Bath and Tamara at Thyme for Tea.

I am so pleased that this is happening again, as it was such a wonderful celebration of all things Parisienne – books, films, food, and more – last time around. But I’m not going to set down anything in advance, because last year I made a list of books and then proceeded to read different books instead. So this time around I’m just going to say that I am going to read some lovely books and have a wonderful time!

And then there’s International Anita Brookner Day, celebrated by Thomas at My Porch. A lovely idea, marking the 30th anniversary of the publication of the author’s first novel on her 83rd birthday.

I discovered Anita Brookner back when she won the Booker Prize with Hotel Do Lac. It was different from anything else I’d read then, and I loved it. I investigated her, then small, backlist and I’ve read everything she’s written since. Except her most recent book. So this might be the time to read that one, but I’m also very tempted to go back and re-read one of her earlier books. or maybe I could do both and see what time has changed…

And a little further in the future there’s Discovering Daphne. But that’s another post for another day …

I have more than enough books calling for immediate attention!

What books – and what reading projects – are calling you?