An Untouched House

Excerpt from the novel by W. F. HERMANS
Translated from the Dutch by DAVID COLMER

Cover of An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans

I went out the back door, across the marble terrace and down into the garden, as I had done so many times before. I looked up at the two windows I had calculated as belonging to the locked room. There was nothing to see. As always, they were covered with blackout paper. Nothing had changed. Walking back and forth, I studied all of the protrusions on the back wall: window frames, downpipes. I couldn’t see any way of climbing up without a ladder. It wasn’t even possible to reach them from the window of another room.

Back in the house, entering my bedroom, I had to slide the cat out of the way with the door. He had been lying on the floor behind it and I just managed to grab him by the scruff of the neck as he tried to slip past me to get to the locked room. Together we lay down on the bed while I held him tightly in my arms.

“Nothing’s allowed to change,” I whispered in his ear, “we’re staying here. Everything’s staying like it is. One day the war will be over. The Germans will withdraw. And we’ll stay here forever.” He shook his head, making a flapping sound with his ears.

“Nobody’s allowed in this town except the Germans and me,” I said. “The Germans will never find out I’m not the owner. And the war will never end. This town will stay off limits forever, except to me. I lifted the cat up with my hands under his front legs, feeling his tiny heart beating against my right thumb, as fast as a watch. He didn’t look at me, his neck was stretched out and he was holding his head away. His eyes, so constrained in their velvet cases, stared ahead as if passively considering the consequences of an unavoidable yet cruel decision.

I let go of him. He jumped down onto the floor with a thud and went back to his post behind the door.

After living there a little longer, I hardly left the house. I didn’t go any further than the summer house in the garden. I felt no need for any activity at all. I spent most of my time in bed in the bedroom; I didn’t wake before noon and had sometimes gone back to sleep again before dark. I only did things that didn’t require any thought. Every day I stayed in the bath until the salts in the water had settled. The layer of sediment was slowly building up, but the tub was still spacious enough. Then I would walk up and down, touching objects without investigating them. On medicine bottles and compacts, on handkerchiefs, and on the edges of sheets were names I didn’t try to pronounce. I completely emptied the wardrobes, tossing silks, velvets and furs onto a pile my cat began to use as a bed. I crawled through them, breathing in the smells. I carefully studied twenty-five pairs of shoes, one after the other, because shoes are the only thing that retain something of the wearer when she is absent. A shoe always has the same shape even if there’s no foot in it. Shoes don’t collapse into flat rags the moment they’re taken off. I felt the soles and the smooth high heels with the palm of my hand. I placed them two by two around the room until there were twenty-five women standing around me. If they were naked and invisible there was nothing to prove they weren’t there, maybe even wiggling their hips, waving their hands above their heads; they could be doing anything as long as they were keeping their feet still.

One day when I had slept in even later than usual, I was so awake I went to the library to get something to read. But all the books were written in a language I didn’t know, except for a number of academic works in German. They were large old-fashioned volumes, with slightly tacky colored plates; loose sheets of waxed paper had been laid over them to prevent damage. They were concerned exclusively with fish. Once this had sunk in, I flung them back into the bookcase and left the library never to return. All the books were about fish. That meant the owner was a fish fancier! Finally I had discovered something about the person who had furnished the house. A fish fancier! I knew something, but I didn’t want to know anything, not his name, not what he looked like, nothing! He had never existed, that was the truth! He had been the intruder, not me. He would be dead at the end of the war; I would stay here forever.

But every now and then my cat would yowl in the night for hours on end. I let him wander wher­ever he liked, but he just meowed at the door of the room that hadn’t been open yet. He tensed his back and dug his claws into the nailed rug, trying to tear up the floor to gain entry. He gave me no rest. I was scared the Germans would hear and come upstairs to ask what was going on and why that cat just stayed sitting there.

That was why, one sunny morning when I couldn’t hear any sounds and there were no cars parked out in front, so I could be sure not a single German was home, I went into the scullery, got a ladder and leant it against the back wall, below the windows of the locked room.

Looking up at the white stones in which millions of suns smaller than pinheads were glinting, I climbed the rungs with a screwdriver and a pair of pincers in my belt, my shadow following me a little lower, like a monkey.

“Hello! Are you the window-cleaner, perhaps?”

I turned my head with my body leaning against the ladder and looked down.

A man, hands on hips, was holding his head back to look up at me. Blinded as I was, I saw him in blurred triplicate, like a messy color print. He spoke German with an accent I didn’t know. I had never seen him before.

“What do you want?”

“I want a word with you!”

He kept his hands on his hips, feet wide apart.

After I had climbed back down, he lit a cigarette and peered into the distance.

“Who are you?” I asked. “Where are your papers?”

He was wearing a rucksack and had two cameras, one on each hip. His eyes were black and so was his thin moustache. He studied me from head to toe before resting his gaze on my trousers while passing me a folded sheet of paper. I unfolded it. It was exactly the same permit as my own, with the same stamps on it. I didn’t bother to read his name. – I was no longer the only civilian allowed in this town! That was my only thought.

I handed the piece of paper back to him.

“I have another document as well,” he said and passed it to me. It was a letter confirming that he was the owner of a house (I didn’t recognize the address) and had permission to resume possession.

I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I’m not familiar with that address. I don’t know this area very well.”

“I do,” he said, “come with me.”

“No. I am refusing you access to these prem­ises. They have been requisitioned by the German Wehrmacht. I am the owner. No one else is allowed here.” Stupid lies: if nothing else, he had lived in the town; if nothing else, he knew the real owner. Even while speaking these bold words, I knew they wouldn’t help.

He turned, took a few steps, looked at me, and walked towards the back door. I followed him, still holding his sheet of paper. Then he stopped abruptly and took a step back.

“Those trousers you’re wearing don’t fit you very well. They are exactly my size, not yours.”

I now made a serious attempt to read the name that had been filled in on the document. I had the impression it resembled the names I had seen on the pill bottles, the compacts, and the edges of the sheets.

He went into the house, looked in the drawing room for a moment, then carried on upstairs as if I didn’t exist.

In the bedroom he opened and closed the ward­robes. I waited to see if he would go into the closed room. But he sat down on the sill of the open window with his rucksack hanging out.

“This is how you’re treated by your allies,” he said. “Call themselves officers! Stealing clothes!”

He reached out to toss his cigarette into the garden.

I had flopped down on the bed. I watched him silently as if he was a film being played just for me.

“Your accent is peculiar,” he continued. “I can’t imagine you’re a German officer. I can’t imagine that a German officer would put on civilian clothes he found in a requisitioned house and then claim to be the owner of the house. I can’t imagine it!”

“What’s that got to do with me?”

“I’ll give that some thought, shall I? I’ll leave this here for the moment.” He stood up, put the rucksack down on the floor, snatched the major general’s letter from my hand, and strolled out of the room.

I stayed sitting there. The walls had resonated to the sound of his voice, the eyes in the paintings had turned toward him: he was the owner!

A little later I thought I heard him in the garden. I stared at his rucksack. He was the owner. Then I got my rifle out from under the bed and crawled over to the window.


Excerpt from An Untouched House, out October 2018 from Archipelago Books.  

Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) was one of the most prolific and versatile Dutch authors of the twentieth century. He wrote essays, scientific studies, short stories, and poems, but was best known for his several novels, the most famous of which are De tranen der acacias (The Tears of the Acacias, 1949), De donkere kamer can Domecles (The Darkroom of Damocles, 1958), and Nooit meer sleepen (Beyond Sleep, 1966). He received, in 1977, the most prestigious literary award among the Dutch, the Prijs Der Nederlandse Letteren (Dutch Literature Prize).

David Colmer is a writer and translator. He translates Dutch literature in a wide range of genres including literary fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, and poetry. He is a four-time winner of the David Reid Poetry Translation Prize, and received the 2009 Biennial NSW Premier and PEN Translation Prize. His translation of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (Archipelago) was awarded the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and he received—along with Gerbrand Bakker—the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Bakker’s novel The Detour.

Photo courtesy of Archipelago Books.

An Untouched House

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