For Proust, the key to memory was a madeleine: for the elderly Wilfried Wils, it’s a snowfall, which carpets the streets around his home in Antwerp. Walking through the city, he remembers how it was in wartime, and decides that it’s time to set down his story, addressing it to an estranged great-grandson. He hopes that this unknown reader will listen and, if not forgive him, then at least understand. The problem, Will knows, is that people like their protagonists to be heroes: the kind of men and women who place principles above their own safety, and protect those less fortunate than themselves. But that isn’t the story that Will has to tell. His is a tale of survival, of self-interest and self-preservation in a world where all certainties have been ripped away; and it isn’t just the tale of one man, but of a whole city. Olyslaegers’s disturbing novel is based around real events in wartime Antwerp, and inspired by the experiences of the author’s own family: his grandfather, who was a Nazi collaborator, and his aunt, the mistress of an SS officer. If it’s unsettling, that’s largely because it forces us to think very hard about how we ourselves would survive under occupation. Would we choose to be heroes, as we’d like to believe? Or would we, too, follow prevailing winds in this ‘life on the razor’s edge‘?
It’s winter 1941 and the Germans have been in Antwerp for six months. Young Will, who has recently joined the police force, is sent off with his colleague Lode to help two German officers track down addresses on a list. Will is familiar with arresting work-dodgers, but he’s disconcerted when he realises that tonight they’re rounding up families: Jewish families. Something has shifted: Antwerp’s occupation is beginning to reveal its true face. This represents a critical moment for Will, who must decide how to respond. Should he, like Lode, feel sympathy for these families, their former neighbours and shopkeepers, who are now marched away to be ‘processed’ in some unspecific way? Should he indulge that sense of outrage, which might one day lead him to more explicit acts of resistance? Or should he support the Germans, and take pride in these acts of ethnic cleansing? He has no great fondness for the Jews – few people in Antwerp do – and he already has friends who admire Nazi principles. Or should he just avoid both extremes, keeping his thoughts to himself, cautiously avoiding anything which might mark him as too sympathetic to either side? After all, Will is only truly interested in what’s best for Will. But is it even possible to be neutral in times like these? As the war progresses, Will discovers that no one can serve two masters without being suspected by both.
Will certainly isn’t a sympathetic character. He’s strangely disconnected from those around him, reporting their actions to us with the cool detachment of an informer. Ever since recovering from a childhood illness, he has held his parents in contempt, convinced that in fact he has another, truer self – the ironically-named Angelo. This secret self is rather like Will’s id; the devil on his shoulder; the dark force of chaos. It’s Angelo, not Will, who sneers at selflessness and finds release in brute force. It’s Angelo who drives Will into erotic experimentation with his titillating girlfriend, or causes him to lose control in a drunken frenzy of violence. It’s a useful device for a man who, as we see, spends his later life riddled with guilt: a chance to claim, innocently, ‘But I wasn’t myself at the time.’ Angelo is the self that Will secretly wishes he had the courage to indulge; but perhaps it’s better that he doesn’t, for there’s little doubt which way Angelo would turn. Will himself doesn’t really take the initiative to do anything – hence the book’s ironic title. He’s a man without will – a great one for watching, listening to others, and half-reporting what he sees or hears. He always says just enough to protect himself, and persuade his friends (of whatever stripe) that he’s on their side; but never more than that.
Following the path of least resistance, Will goes where he is invited, and does what he is asked to do, without ever really following purpose or principle. He accompanies his former French tutor, the fascist anti-Semite ‘Meanbeard’, to bars where he rubs shoulders with collaborators and members of the SS. He and his family visit his aunt Emma, who has taken over the splendid house where she used to work as a maid for a wealthy Jewish family, and who flaunts her high-ranking boyfriend, the SS officer Gregor. And yet, on the other hand, Will allows his friend and future brother-in-law, Lode, to get him involved in a secret enterprise to feed and hide a Jewish refugee. It seems a brave and selfless act; but is it? Will wonders. The Jewish man is wealthy, able to pay for his safety; you wonder if Lode would consider it worth his while to protect an impoverished family. Similarly, Lode’s friends in the resistance are (to Will’s eyes) merely pompous intellectuals, playing at virtue: when the chips are down, they’re all too ready to talk. Whatever side they’ve chosen, people are just trying to find a way to get by, to improve the lot they’ve been given. Only the bravest speak up, like Will’s colleague Jean, a great Viking of a man, whose obvious contempt for the German forces leads to his destruction. Does Will respect him, just a little? Or does he feel that Jean is a fool, like all the others, who thinks he can shoot his mouth off with impunity?
This is a world where hardly anyone dares to say what they think, so it’s no surprise that Will is an unreliable narrator. He may not intend to be, but his story is solipsistic – as all memoirs are. We are all unreliable narrators when it comes to our own lives. Will considers himself intellectually superior to others (he is, of course, a frustrated poet), and regards those around him with all the arrogance of a conceited young man, his own fear hidden beneath his scorn for others. What we see of these others – Lode, Jean, Gaston, Emma – is purely what Will tells us, and I’m not sure how far he can be trusted. If this novel is a confession, then it’s a mitigated one: it tries to absolve Will by pointing out that everyone was at it. If he is guilty of collaboration, then his countrymen are no better, with their revisionist approach to the past:
weighing one thing up against the other, what they’d seen and what they hadn’t seen, with an emphasis on that ‘hadn’t’, with their sudden myopia accepted by others for the simple reason that nobody, from high to low, from the permanent secretary to the provincial governor, from the mayor to a rookie in uniform like me, was free of blame… They were times of ambiguity and contempt, and in that they’re no different from any other times.
Inevitably, perhaps, this reminded me of The Evenings, another tale of youthful wanderings in a world (still) scarred by war, with an even more unappealing narrator. And yet I thought Will had the upper hand – partly due to the earthy translation by David Colmer. Will himself might be unpleasantly self-centred, but in a way that only adds to his realism. He is not trying to tell us the full sweeping history of Antwerp’s occupation: we skip from time to time, settling on events that either involve him or directly capture his interest. We learn a great deal about his erotic experimentation with his girlfriend, for example, but completely ignore the city’s liberation by the Americans (which we see only in its aftermath). Even in the midst of war, after all, life goes on. Shaped by real lives and real stories, this novel turns the spotlight on the process of that lifestyle, the constant haggling, negotiation and moral gymnastics needed to survive in a world under siege.
Incidentally, if you’d like to learn a little more about the background, and the challenges of translating a text like this, take a look at this very interesting article, which records a conversation between Olyslaegers and Colmer.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review