Will (2016): Jeroen Olyslaegers


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‘?

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