I know what everyone thinks: he’s going to fall down and break his hip. He’ll find himself in a bed in Saint-Vincent’s. And that’ll be the end of him, struck down by one of those bacteria they have the secret of growing in hospitals. It’s strange how old people allow themselves to be contaminated by other people’s fear. Because of that fear they let themselves be locked up in old people’s homes, let themselves be ovecome with tasteless muck and twaddle, with a stupid bingo night and a Maroccain woman stuck behind their bums with a strip of toilet paper.***
So begins Olyslaeger’s excellent novel of the Second World War in Anderlecht, a story being told by a cynical old man to his unborn great grandson in this Dutch language Belgian book read for the “Roman De Rochefort” prize. As the title suggests the narrator, a young man at the outbreak of the Second World War walks a questionable line in this occupied city. As the story begins Wilfried Wils obtains a job as a Belgian policeman in order to avoid forced labour service in Germany, but pretty soon he was employed in rounding up those that tried to avoid this same service, with an insight into the ambiguous views of the public in general, welcoming the Nazis, and the police force in general to the German occupation. As he comments after being ordered by German military to follow them:
In principal, we should present ourselves to get our orders, but when a Feldfritz shouts, you obey. We head down the Pelikaanstraat towards the south. Lode and I marching behind the two uniformed Übermenschen in complete silence, like two punished children. The Germans have only been here seven months and it’s as if they’ve been here several years. The town lead on its back, legs wide open, for these supermen.***
Wilfried Wils sails through pretty muddy water, not necessarily understanding everything that’s going on around himself, mostly putting up with the Germans but with an ambivalent reaction to their occupation, pushed by his friend Lode who despite personal risk seems to have a clearer view of the “übermenschen” and despises the local lookalikes:
A Waffen-SS uniform suddenly pulls up at our table.
May I invite the young lady to accompany me to the dance floor?
We look up. He’s not a German. He’s one of our’s, but with his hair shaved on the sides and the heels he clacks together, you could take him for the real thing, as if this town was only good for shitting in and that his heart and soul had been cast in Prussia.***
Olyslaegers, in interviews,tells of his personal relationship to this story as, at a university reading, he comes across a story of a Jewish family who, during the first roundup of Jews in Anderlecht commit suicide with the father cutting his own throat spouting blood on the Belgian policeman that had come to get him. The street name in the story rang a bell to him and when he later asked his mother she told him he had an aunt who worked for a Jewish family, who had committed suicide, in that street and that afterwards she had lived on in the house with her SS boyfriend.
He tells us of Wilfried Wils living this story and of the policemen wanting to file reports saying that the Jews had not been told why they were being arrested but that they caved in under pressure from above. Wils had found his job with the police through an old school teacher, an active Nazi sympathiser with whom he keeps up a relationship throughout the war, despite his abhorrence, a friend of his aunt’s Nazi boyfriend, this quote towards the end of the book, gives an idea of the views of this group of people:
For you, its a fucking game. But it’s people like me that pay for it. We succeeded in wiping out the Jews in this town, those parasites who have infested our town for so many years are nearly all gone. It was a promise we kept. the credit is mine in part, in spite of the hypocrisy of people like you…..All that I want, is ….a tobacconist’s with Jenny….comfortable…without a Jew boy in view, in a town fully thankfull to people like me for all the sacrifices we’ve made.***
Even those that seem to be less murky than others, such as Lode and his father who hide a Jew at great risk to themselves are shown to be doing it for money, Anderlecht was the diamond capital of Europe. As the war comes to an end and Wilfried Wils gets involved in a bloody act of vengeance against one of the worst Jew hunters, disgusting Lode with his violence. All of which comes back to haunt him in a personal tragedy some fifty years later.
This is a book that, far from the binary simplification of good and bad, goes some way to explaining how life might have been under occupation in a town showing no real sympathy to what they considered a migrant population. As Wils says early in the story, no one knew where the Jews were being sent but at the same time they didn’t suppose that it was to a place where they could be integrated into society.
First Published in Dutch as “Wil” in 2016 by Bezige Bij b.v.
Translated into French by Françoise Antoine and published as “Trouble” in 2019 by Stock
*** my translation
The quotes as read in French before translation
Je sais ce que tout le monde pense: il va tomber et se fracturer la hanche. Il va se trouver dans un lit à saint-Vincent. Et puis s’en sera fini de lui, terrassé qu’il sera par l’une de ces bactéries qu’ils ont le don de cultiver dans les hôpitaux. C’est curieux comme les vieilles personnes se laissent contaminer par la peur des autres. À cause de cette peur, elles se laissent enfermer dans les maisons de repos, se laissent abreuver de fadaises et de bouillies froides, avec une soirée bingo à la con et une Marocaine pendue à leur derrière avec un morceau de papier cul.
En principe, nous devions nous présenter pour recevoir nos ordres, mais quand un Feldfritz gueule, tu t’exécutes. Nous prenons la Pelikaanstraat en direction du sud. Lode et moi marchons derrière les deux Übermenschen en uniforme dans un silence parfait, comme deux enfants punis. Les Allemands ne sont ici que depuis sept mois et c’est comme si la place était à eux depuis des années. La ville s’est couchée, cuisses grandes ouvertes, devant ces surhommes.
Un uniforme de la Waffen-SS se dresse tout à coup à côté de notre table.
Puis-je inviter la demoiselle à m’accompagner sur la piste de danse?
On lève les yeux. Ce n’est pas un Allemand. C’est un gars de chez nous, mais avec des cheveux rasés sur les côtés et les talons qu’il fait claquer l’un contre l’autre, on dirait un presque vrai, comme si cette ville n’était plus bonne que pour y déféquer, et que son corps et son esprit avaient été coulés en Prusse.
Pour toi, c’est un jeu salaud. Mais ce sont des gens comme moi qui paient l’addition. On a réussi à exterminer les juifs de cette ville, ces parasites qui ont infesté notre ville pendant tant d’années sont presque tous partis. C’était une promesse et nous l’avons réalisée.Le mérite m’en revenait en partie, malgré l’hypocrisie de gens comme toi….Tout ce que je veux, c’est.. un tabac avec Jenny…à notre aise…sans un youpin à l’horizon, dans une ville pleine de gratitude à l’égard de gens comme moi pour tous les sacrifices consentis.