Shortlisted for the 2021 Vondel Translation Prize

Translated from Dutch by David Colmer

It’s Dutch Book Week in Holland. No better time to continue my journey through the 2021 Vondel Translation Prize shortlist, and the second title on that list published by Pushkin Press.

Wilfried Wils (Will), an old and lonely man, is writing the memoir of his time in Nazi-occupied Antwerp. Rather than be shipped to forced labour in Germany, he joins the local police force. This isn’t an easy opt-out, for the Nazis enlist the local police to do their dirty work – rounding up Jews, for instance. This in a city, where the mayor insists that every synagogue be protected. Not out of sympathy for the persecuted; he just doesn’t want to be liable for the repair bills.

It’s a contradictory position, and there is something of this contradiction in Will, a compliant local lad, pursued by and submitting to his colleague’s sister, Yvette. He has an alter-ego he calls Angelo. One with a nasty streak. Whenever Angelo appears people are silenced, afraid and back off. You’re never quite sure what Will/Angelo is capable of, but as the novel progresses his deeds get darker …

Will is placed between two opposing factions: Yvette’s family, who are sympathetic to the persecuted Jews, and his own, who are Nazi sympathisers. Yvette’s family help Jews escape, his Aunt Emma shacks up with the leading SS officer. Will gains his position in the local police through his former French teacher, Meanbeard, now an established Nazi collaborateur. So, of course, this act of “kindness” must be repaid. Will/Angelo prove themselves quite adept at the resulting balancing act, until, of course, the day comes when the mask(s) must slip.

We know that Will survives, because he’s writing his memoirs in old age. We also discover that he’s writing them for his great grandson, because he wants him to hear first-hand what his forebear got up to, to avoid the tragedy that occurred when his favourite grand-daughter discovered his secrets second hand. Whatever can they be? Bad enough to estrange his whole family, not guilt-inducing enough for Will to apologise. Interesting. Would that be Angelo’s influence?

As I was reading, I constantly thought of two things: the Roman god, Janus, the two-faced one. Which face is Will presenting now? Also W F Hermans’s The Darkroom of Damocles, which also concerns double agents in Nazi-occupied territory. Yet, after multiple readings of Hermans’s novel, I’m still not sure whether his protagonist is a double agent or not. Perhaps another re-read after reading Will will finally provide a definitive answer?

Olyslaegers prose is direct, vivid and uncomfortably graphic in places. Fascinating too in its portrayal of wartime Antwerp. Who would have thought that pain intensified there after the Nazis had withdrawn? But the fact remains Antwerp was the target of more V1s and V2s than all other Nazi WWII targets put together! So, unfortunately, some passages, with the appropriate substitutions, no longer feel as though they come from the past. They resonate unbearably with contemporary times:

The rocket, the V-2, the Germans’ second weapon of retribution, drilled deep into the packed cinema like a bolt of lightning, hurled by an Aryan deity, a deity who no longer gives a shit about hitting targets, as long as he strikes terror into his enemies. Terror? You can rest assured about that.

Will is a dark novel, even as it explores multiple grey areas, and raises many questions. (There’s even doubt about the altruism of Yvette’s family. Is it reserved only for wealthy Jewish diamond merchants, who can pay?) While the protagonist isn’t likeable, can he be condemned? His choices may not hold the moral high ground, but, in April 2022, it’s hard to disagree with his statement re war:

It never stops, nothing ever stops. It all keeps going and it never goes away, no matter how much everyone wants to draw lines in the sand that say ‘this far and no further’.