cover image A Guardian Angel Recalls

A Guardian Angel Recalls

Willem Frederik Hermans, trans. from the Dutch by David Colmer. Archipelago, $20 trade paper (512p) ISBN 978-1-953861-02-3

Hermans (An Untouched House) interweaves a bitter, occasionally darkly comic moral fable with an unforgettable account of the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, first published in 1971 and seamlessly translated by Colmer. In early May 1940, the Netherlands has so far remained neutral, but in only a matter of days will surrender after the firebombing of Rotterdam. Simon “Bert” Alberegt, a prosecutor, having just put his Communist girlfriend on a ship to England and safety, accidentally hits a little girl with his car, killing her. In a cowardly act that sets him on a downward spiral, he hides the body and proceeds to his appointment in the courtroom (he is prosecuting a journalist who has bad-mouthed Hitler in print, violating a relatively new Dutch law prohibiting such speech against “friendly heads of state”). It turns out Bert’s victim was an undocumented Jewish refugee whose parents are in a concentration camp, and she was in the care of an elderly refugee couple aided by Bert’s best friend, Erik. Tormented more by the fear of getting caught than by genuine guilt, Bert stubbornly fails to take responsibility. Narrating the story is his long-suffering guardian angel, who mostly protects Bert from harm, but cannot prevent his making atrocious decisions. Devils also tempt Bert to succumb to his desire for suicide, and arrogantly rationalize his misdeeds. Hermans does a wonderful job tracking Bert’s ethical, moral, and spiritual roller coaster, which fascinatingly mirrors the Dutch Nazi sympathizers and fifth columnists who enabled fascism. This should establish Hermans as a modern Dostoyevsky. (Oct.)