My grandfather was an old soldier during the second world war. Too old to have been called up normally, he was called up because he had been in the Territorial Army and had experience of weapons. He became a regimental sergeant-major “in the field”. Somewhere I have a photo of him with a group of other RSMs, friends of his. He was the only one to survive the war.
In charge of a supply column moving up Italy his group found themselves behind enemy lines after Italy surrendered and Germany invaded, sweeping down through Italy leaving his column stranded. Through the offices of some Glasgow Italian soldiers they were able to make contact with local partisans, hand over the supplies to them and fought alongside them for some months. Family legend is that was the one period of the war he would never talk about. What did they do that he could not talk about? Partisan warfare is not exactly nice, you can’t take prisoners.
From time to time I’ve read novels or experiences of partisan life and have just read An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans (translated by David Colmer), newly published by Pushkin at £7.99. Hermans was a Dutch writer, read by many in Holland, but whose work was so disliked that he went into voluntary exile. He did not make life easy for himself, as the afterword by Cees Nooteboom, explains. When Hermans died his archives comprise “thirty meters of coagulated anger”.
Partly this was because he published about the war before plucky little Holland had come to terms with aspects of their war that were not the stuff of legend. Later he was a critic of Dutch rule in Indonesia.
This book, first published in 1951, is a novella about a short period in the life of an unnamed Dutch partisan who somehow ended up fighting in an unnamed area of Eastern Europe. After a successful battle against occupying German forces he wanders off and finds the untouched house of the title, a rather beautiful house in an area deserted by its occupants. There’s soup on the stove, evidence of recent flight, but no sign of life.
The partisan explores the house, strips off his filthy battle gear, bathes and sleeps in clean sheets.
Then German soldiers turn up, knocking at the door, planning to requisition the house. He – the partisan – passes himself off as the owner and allows them in, simply grumbling a bit to ensure they look after the place, as any owner would. It sounds a bit like a farce typing this, but shortly afterwards the real owners turn up when the Germans are out on patrol. The partisan has no option but to kill them to avoid being found out. In due course his former partisan comrades arrive, the Germans have been beaten off for good, the German captain had already surrendered to the partisan of the story, now back in uniform and the mystery of the one locked room in the house has been solved.
The partisans proceed to find the wine cellar, get raging drunk and… well, they are not exactly nice to the house, their captive and an elderly deaf and confused man who had turned up to look after his collection of rare fish in that locked room. The fish don’t do well out of this either.
Sorry for the spoiler.
And this book is one of the reasons Hermans was read but not popular in Holland. Every occupied force and every army of occupation likes to think of itself at least in retrospect as the good guys, the most moral. Hermans, in An Untouched House, suggests otherwise.
An Untouched House is available for £7.99 post free from firstname.lastname@example.org