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The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik…

The Darkroom of Damocles (1958)

by Willem Frederik Hermans

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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“Wat is een held? Iemand die straffeloos onvoorzichtig is geweest.”
― Willem Frederik Hermans, De donkere kamer van Damokles
Can you read the above quote? Most people can't since it is written in Dutch. One big reason William Fredrick Hermans (1921-1925) isn't a well know as other authors of his generation, say, Heinrich Böll, William Trevor or Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Willem Frederik Hermans's novel of intrigue and espionage is told not in first person narrative but has the quality of first person narrative since the story follows one Henri Osewoudt so closely the reader looks over Osewoudt's shoulder throughout the entire novel. Occasionally the narrator conveys Osewoudt's thoughts and feeling, but it's the fast-paced action driving the story told in short unnumbered chapters, short chapters fueling a keen sense of urgency as the story unfolds in twists and turns. Hermans employs simple linear progression with no flash-backs or other time shifts - events happen as Osewoudt experiences them, starting when, after his mad mother murders his father, Osewoudt, a boy of thirteen, is sent to Amsterdam to live with his aunt and uncle and nineteen year old cousin.

About five years pass and Osewoudt marries his cousin, moves back to his father's tobacco shop and is pressed into becoming an active member of the Dutch underground fighting against the Nazis in 1939. Osewouldt is the opposite of a Hollywood-style handsome hero; the author describes him as follows: "A diminutive freak, a toad reared upright. His nose was more of a button than a nose. And his eyes, even when not focusing, seemed forever narrowed, as if he could only leer, not look normally. His mouth recalled the kind of orifice through which the lowest forms of life ingest their food, not a mouth that could laugh or talk." Perhaps the author wants us to experience, reflect, and consider events happening in Nazi occupied Netherlands with a cool objective clarity rather than rooting for an attractive main character.

A man named Dorbeck recruits Osewoudt into the Dutch underground. Dorbeck has a military background and gives orders as the person squarely in charge. Turns out, Dorbeck is the same height and build as Osewoudt, and, other than the black hair and a beard to shave, looks exactly like Osewouldt. Durbeck becomes the center of Osewoudt's life and identify, in a very real sense Dorbeck is Osewoudt's double, his Doppelgänger.

After years in the underground, Osewoudt tells his girlfriend, "But I can only obey Dorbeck, and no one forced me. . . . I had no skills, no ambition. It wasn't until I met Dorbeck that I felt I wanted something, if only to be like Dorbeck, if only to want the same things as he did. And wanting the same thing as someone else is a step up from not wanting anything." As the story progresses we come to see just how tight the grip Dorbeck has on Osewoudt.

Other than Dorbeck, his leader and contact (and also his idol), Osewoudt moves in a spy versus spy world where nothing is certain and there isn't a person alive who can be trusted completely: identities and names continually shift and change, indeed, Osewoudt changes names on more than one occasion and at one point dyes his fair hair black and at another point wears the uniform of a nurse..

One meaning of the book's title, The Darkroom of Damocles, can be taken as the state of an entire country under foreign military occupation: at any moment, the Damoclean sword held by a thread hanging over one's head can drop and one can find oneself interrogated under a spotlight, taken away to prison, or standing in front of a firing squad.

Toward the end of the novel when held prisoner by the Dutch authorities and exasperated in his attempt to prove his innocence, Osewoudt says, "Everything I've ever done is slipping through my fingers! The people I worked with during the war are all either dead or missing, and even the streets I used to know no longer exist. It's beyond belief. I feel I'm in a different world, where no one will believe me. What am I to do? How in God's name can I ever justify myself at this rate." What a quagmire - trying to explain and justify and prove events happening within the world of war retrospectively in a time of peace.

( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |

This is a Dutch classic, and I got my copy when they distributed it for free via the libraries, in order to get more people to read and discuss books. The Darkroom of Damocles is set in the second world war where Henri Osewoudt meets Dorbeck - who looks just like him - and recruits him to the resistance. But when it is necessary, no one can find this man, or even remembers even seeing him. There is proof though, a photograph of the two of them, but where is it? A very interesting novel about what is real and what isn't.

Henri Osewoudt ontmoet Dorbeck, een man die precies op hem lijkt. Direct onder de indruk van de man, gaat hij op zijn aanbod in om een aantal foto's te ontwikkelen. Het blijkt het begin van zijn tijd bij het verzet te zijn. Alleen, na het eind van de oorlog, word Henri plots opgepakt. Dorbeck blijkt nergens te vinden te zijn, niemand kan zich hem zelfs maar herinneren. Er een foto die Henri's gelijk kan bewijzen, maar waar is die?

Ik heb lang het lezen van dit boek lang uitgesteld, ik weet eigenlijk niet eens meer waarom. Maar toen ik het via Nederland Leest toch in handen kreeg, was ik te nieuwsgierig om het niet te lezen. En ik ben blij dat ik dat toch gedaan heb, want ik vond het een heel interessant boek. Vooral omdat je op het einde zelf ook niet goed meer weet wat wel en wat niet echt gebeurd is. Ik vond het zeker een aanrader.

( )
  Floratina | May 26, 2016 |
Een grandioos boek! En een echte page-turner, maar ook prachtig geschreven. Van de eerste tot de laatste bladzijde spannend en boeiend. De personen zijn erg goed uitgewerkt. Een glimp van het verhaal: een wat "ingeslapen" sigarenhandelaar komt aan het begin van de oorlog in contact met een Nederlandse militair die sprekend op hem lijkt, en die hem een aantal opdrachten gaat geven in het kader van het verzet. In de oorlog wordt de sigarenhandelaar (twee keer) door de Duitsers, en na de oorlog door de Nederlanders gearresteerd. Wat is er aan de hand? Is er sprake van een persoonsverwisseling? Wie is er "goed" en wie is er "fout"? Wie kan eigenlijk voor hem getuigen? Hij heeft een foto gemaakt van zichzelf en de opdrachtgever, in een spiegel. Zijn lot hangt af van wat er precies op die foto staat.
Hierboven heb ik een paar zaken aangegeven die spelen in het boek. Het is zo goed geschreven, dat je het niet kunt neerleggen. Omdat je nu eenmaal ook andere verplichtingen moet nakomen, liggen er tussen mijn eerste kennismaking met het boek en de laatste bladzijde toch nog enkele dagen. Ik kan me uit de laatste jaren geen boek herinneren dat me zo geboeid heeft. Destijds heb ik de film wel gezien, maar daarin is de voortdurende spanning wat er nu precies aan de hand is veel minder aanwezig. En de laatste scene uit de film komt (gelukkig!) niet in het boek voor. Kortom, ook als je de film al gezien hebt moet je het boek lezen! De vijf sterren zijn wat mij betreft ten volle verdiend. Ik ben niet zo'n liefhebber van Nederlandse litteratuur, maar dit is een zeer duidelijke uitzondering! ( )
  ReneH | Sep 26, 2013 |
I started this book once before when I was in secondary school. Couldn't get through then, so I thought I'd give it a try again. Same result I'm afraid, I just couldn't get a hold of the story.
After trying several weeks (!), I just gave up. Yesterday I brought it back to the library. Just not written for me, this book. ( )
  BoekenTrol71 | Mar 31, 2013 |
Here's another text I never previously read because of all the hype. If I'd read this back when I was 14 years old, it might've blown my mind.

This postmodern text is a (somewhat deceptively) easy, enjoyable read from which you can get more fun (if you're so inclined) by comparing discrepancies within the narrative in the final section with what allegedly occurred earlier in the text.

Spoiler alert!

[spoiler]From the moment Dorbeck showed up, I interpreted this book the same way as suggested by the psychologist at the end. However, by that point it's become apparent that the psychological interpretation cannot be definitive, for there's a third, philosophical level of meaning in the book.[/spoiler] ( )
  Frenzie | Mar 11, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (38 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Willem Frederik Hermansprimary authorall editionscalculated
Breij, Claudia delofredesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Freriks, PhilipForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weijts, Christiaansecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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...Dagenlang zwierf hij rond op zijn vlot, zonder drinken.
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During the German occupation of Holland, Tobacconist Henri Osewoudt is visited by Dorbeck. Dorbeck is Osewoudt's spitting image in reverse. Henri is blond & beardless with a high voice; Dorbeck is dark-haired, & his voice is deep. Dorbeck gives Osewoudt a series of dangerous assignments: helping British agents & eliminating traitors.… (more)

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