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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Darkroom of Damocles

Willem Frederik Hermans

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To purchase The Darkroom of Damocles

Title: The Darkroom of Damocles
Author: Willem Frederik Hermans
Genre: Novel
Written: 1958 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 334 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Darkroom of Damocles - US
The Darkroom of Damocles - UK
The Darkroom of Damocles - Canada
. La Chambre noire de Damoclés - France
. Die Dunkelkammer des Damokles - Deutschland
El cuarto oscuro de Damocles - España
  • Dutch title: De donkere kamer van Damokles
  • Translated by Ina Rilke
  • Previously translated by Roy Edwards (1962)
  • De donkere kamer van Damokles was made into a film (1963) titled Als twee druppels water, directed by Fons Rademakers

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Our Assessment:

A- : dark novel of hapless soul trying to do right but in over his head

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 11/8/2007 Stuart McGurk
FAZ A 4/12/2001 Volker Weidermann
Harper's . 7/2022 Francine Prose
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 18/10/2001 Dorothea Dieckmann
The NY Rev. of Books . 27/10/2011 Tim Parks
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/3/2022 Tim Parks
The Scotsman . 23/6/2007 Michael Pye
The Telegraph . 13/9/2007 Neel Mukherjee
TLS . 8/6/2007 Paul Binding
Die Welt . 15/12/2001 Alexander von Bormann
Die Zeit . 17/1/2002 Evelyn Finger

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "This is both an existential romp and a witty parable for how events can seem sane in war time, but mad after. Written in dry, delicate style, it reveals an author whose work could do with more exposure." - Stuart McGurk, Financial Times

  • "(E)in meisterhafter Roman (...) Es gibt keinen Moment des Mitleidens bei Willem Frederik Hermans. Was geschieht, muß geschehen. Genau so." - Volker Weidermann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "It’s astonishing and virtuosic, the way in which almost every event in the novel so far comes to seem more and more sinister in hindsight. And it reminds us of how the differences between reality and fantasy, patriotism and treachery, can -- under certain circumstances -- be a matter of perspective." - Francine Prose, Harper's

  • "(T)he way this novel about the Dutch wartime experience is pitched as both a thriller and a philosophical debate on the difficulty of knowing reality suggests an awareness of foreign readers that is not there in Boon’s or Claus’s work." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "In a tour de force of interrogations, newspaper articles, psychiatric examinations, and even letters to the queen of England, Henri’s involvement in the war is reconstructed and deconstructed far beyond the point of bewilderment. Everyone has his or her version of events; no one listens to anyone else. Convinced that he is the victim of a misunderstanding, Henri shows no remorse for his many killings. The one man who might throw some light on events, Dorbeck, is never found. It is hardly surprising that The Darkroom of Damocles proved offensive to anyone who believed in the patriotic spirit of the Dutch resistance. Hermans was a polemicist with a gift for the kind of overkill that transforms ordinary denunciation into something spectacular and terrifying. Had his novels been translated into English at the time they were written, no doubt their reception would have been equally tumultuous." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "The Darkroom of Damocles is a brilliantly worked wartime thriller, and exceptionally disturbing (.....) Everything is ambiguous in this story, but everything is also solid, exact and precise: the trams, the addresses, the need for hair dye or paper money, the snap of a neck or the weight of a gun. Everything adds up: the question is, to what ?" - Michael Pye, The Scotsman

  • "Crackling with tension at the same time as a philosophical cynicism -- or perhaps just an uninterested amorality -- about motives and actions, this is an edgy, uneasy novel about the human condition, effortlessly disguised as a thriller." - Neel Mukherjee, The Telegraph

  • "Yet it would be a mistake to read The Darkroom of Damocles, which was first published in 1958, as a historical account. Rather, the Occupation, with its moral reversals, its laws and shibboleths, its imposed need for disguises, untruths and assumptions of alien identity, provides the perfect setting for Hermans to exercise his disillusioned view of human nature. (...) To read this novel in Ina Rilke's sensitive, supple English is a literary experience of the rarest kind." - Paul Binding, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Ein so kühler, philosophisch-sarkastischer Blick auf die Kriegs- und die frühe Nachkriegszeit war nicht, was man 1958 haben wollte. (...) Es bleibt ein hervorragend geschriebenes, ingeniös konstruiertes Buch." - Alexander von Bormann, Die Welt

  • "Dass Hermans die Zufallsvermutung nie gegen die Legitimität des Widerstands wendet, darin liegt die Größe seines Romans. (....) Hermans' Tragödie der Irrungen vermeidet Heldenverklärung ebenso wie Denkmalstürmerei, folglich tendiert der Roman zum Fatalismus" - Evelyn Finger, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       De donkere kamer van Damokles ('The dark room of Damocles') is the story of Henri Osewoudt. When he is only twelve his mentally ill mother kills his father, and he goes to live with an aunt and uncle -- and their nineteen year-old daughter Ria, with whom he sleeps, from the first night on.
       As with slipping into Ria's bed, he often takes the path of least resistance. He's not too disappointed to be too small to join the military (falling half a centimetre short), and when his mother is due to be released from the institution where she was held Osewoudt decides that rather than pursue his studies he will take over his father's old tobacco shop, marry Ria, and have his mother live with them.
       He might be able to live a simple, anonymous life in this sleepy suburb, but it's 1939 and the world is a'changing. Osewoudt gets his chance to do his part when his alter ego comes into his shop with some films to develop: Dorbeck could pass for Osewoudt's twin -- his better half, the man he could have been --, who managed to get into the military and is doing all he can to fight the Nazi occupiers. A shadowy figure who will slip into and out of Osewoudt's life, he also enlists Osewoudt in the cause -- the resistance, it would appear.
       Dorbeck entrusts Osewoudt with first smaller and then larger tasks, and Osewoudt goes along with whatever is required. He wants to contribute, but he's also very much a pawn, used by Dorbeck as the latter sees fit. Osewoudt proves capable enough (put a gun in his hand and he can pull the trigger), but as Dorbeck's tool isn't really part of the resistance -- and in way over his head.
       Dorbeck's first request was to develop a film he gave to Osewoudt. In his eagerness to please Osewoudt makes a hash of things, and the photos will come to haunt him, a nice novelistic touch as they constantly reappear, open to interpretation despite ostensibly being reproductions of reality. But things aren't always what they seem.
       Osewoudt is eventually captured by the Germans, but even before this he is a suspect figure on both sides. Kept in prison but not really harmed, he is now put in a different position. The Germans use provocateurs to undermine and compromise the Dutch resistance, and it's soon hard not to suspect that Osewoudt is one: wherever he went near-disaster followed for the resistance, and his kid-glove treatment at the hands of his Nazi-captors suggests only the one possible explanation. His wife, mother, and girlfriend are also rounded-up in an attempt to get him, but even that doesn't work out quite as planned.
       After the war ends Osewoudt is immediately arrested (and he certainly looks the suspicious figure when he is). All the evidence suggests he was a collaborator, his every deed having compromised the resistance, and pretty much everything that might prove he was actually working for the right side is open to interpretation. Most devastatingly: there's no proof that any Dorbeck even existed
       Hermans' isn't so much anti-heroic novel as un-heroic. It offers a remarkable picture of the Dutch experience in World War II, and of the difficulty faced by the individual trying to contribute to society. Osewoudt is not even particularly incompetent -- a girl sent over from England shows how spectacularly wrong things can be done -- and he even makes some contributions (though, as murder, they're of a decidedly ugly sort), but certainty and a type of competence, as manifested by Dorbeck, prove not to be much better.
       Unsentimental and brutally honest, with both a sense for the absurd and a sharp wit, Hermans hasn't written a sympathetic story, but it's impressive, nevertheless -- grandiose, even, especially in capturing some specific Dutch types. The characters -- including Osewoudt, his German captor, his uncle, and the women in his life -- are also very nicely realised, and the plotting is excellent. De donkere kamer van Damokles is both war-time thriller and metaphysical mystery. It leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling, but it's a worthwhile ride.

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The Darkroom of Damocles: Reviews: Als twee druppels water - the film: Willem Frederik Hermans: Other books by Willem Frederik Hermans under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature

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About the Author:

       Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) was a leading Dutch author.

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