How does a young man in wartime Antwerp avoid being shipped off to work in Nazi Germany? Wilfried Wils finds a convenient solution: join the local police – even if that means handing over to the Nazi occupiers other men seeking to avoid forced labour. For Wilfried is above all a survivor. The occupation calls for compromises of conscience, and this young fellow – whose lack of grit lends a bitter irony to the title ‘Will’ – bends with the times.
The novel opens in today’s Antwerp, as an aged Wilfried wanders through the snowy city. Musing, he slips back through a fold in time to the winter of 1941, when two Nazi gendarmes command him and his friend and fellow constable, Lode, to round up a Jewish family. They obey, but Lode protests and resists. Wilfried, though disgusted by the gendarmes’ cruelty, reports the incident only in order to pre-empt a possible complaint against the two constables. This is the first of many scenes in which he slides further and further into collaboration with the occupiers.
The narrative weaves back and forth in time between the present day and the early 1940s, when events that set their stamp on the rest of Wilfried’s life take place. There are also flashbacks to his late teens, when his father packs him off for extra French lessons to a viciously anti-Semitic character he calls ‘Meanbeard’, as well as passages about a tragedy that occurs in Wilfried’s seventies. Wilfried appears to be telling his story to a teenage great-grandson, though one he scarcely knows. The reasons for his broken family emerge little by little in the course of the novel.
In 1942: Het jaar van de stilte (‘1942: The Year of Silence’), historian Herman Van Goethem chronicles the wartime persecution and deportation of the Jews of Antwerp in painful detail, day by day. Jeroen Olyslaegers does something comparable in his gripping novel, bringing the past vividly to life and showing how it continues to affect the present. Indeed, his protagonist argues that the evils of history never end; it is a ‘stream of filth, bastardry that never stops, not really’. The recent use by a British newspaper of the epithet ‘enemies of the people’ (a term used by ‘respectable’ middle-class anti-Semites in Will) bears out the continuity of a current of thought that is anti-democratic and opposed to the rule of law.
In Will, Olyslaegers paints a convincing portrait of a man who is not evil, not even bad; in fact, he is sometimes almost likeable. It is precisely that which makes the novel so disturbing. The same man who writes poetry and comments sardonically on the ills of society can also violently attack a member of the Resistance in order to save his own skin. Wilfried Wils is Everyman. Though he speaks a robust Flemish (brilliantly conveyed in David Colmer’s translation), he might be of any nationality under occupation.
Reviewed by Fiona Graham
Written by Jeroen Olyslaegers
Translated by David Colmer
Published by Pushkin Press (2020)
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Fiona Graham’s translations include Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: When Now Begins (Scribe UK), which was longlisted for the 2018 Warwick Women in Translation award and the 2019 JQ Wingate Prize.
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