The deeper I get into this year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist, the clearer it is becoming how much deeper a list this is than last year. After a first reading, it was fairly clear which had a shot at winning on last year’s list and which were inferior, but as I read more and more of the longlist this year I’m realizing that I’m going to have to go back and look through most of these titles carefully to set them in order.
Wonder by Hugo Claus is yet another strong title, one that I can hardly believe received no notice whatsoever upon publication in the traditional U.S. literary press, other than a Publishers Weekly capsule review. (Although do check out the fine review/essay at The National, which has distinguished itself in my eyes for it’s high quality literary coverage.) This book is a little more difficult to write up in short form than some of the other titles I’ve discussed lately because there isn’t really a dazzling conceit to the book. It’s simply about a man driven insane by the Nazi legacy in Belgium. (And it’s interesting to note that this is the second straight year the BTB longlist features a European title that deals centrally with collaborationist war guilt; last year was The Darkroom of Damocles, a fine book in its own right, from the Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans.) It somewhat reminds me of Senselessness since there is so much overlap among the themes, the claustrophobic writing style, and, quite frankly, the outright mastery of language (though the narrators are very different personalities).
As to the language, Claus’s abilities are astonishing, so much so that I’m eager to read his poetry (of which he wrote over 1,000 pages). I don’t want to give away too many plot points, but it becomes clear fairly early on that the book we are reading is the writing of a mild-mannered middle school teacher trying to reconstruct a series of events that was sparked by an odd confrontation with a ravishing woman at a masked ball and that ended with him unclothed and raving in the street.
It’s clear that as the narrator writes this book he still isn’t nearly cured (nor does he seem to have a firm grip on the events in question), and so, among other tools Claus uses to evoke the decayed mental state of the book’s author, he frequently shifts between the first-, second-, and third-person. That’s only a small part of the gymnastics going on over here. So much of this book rests on implication and innuendo (which is wholly appropriate to a book in which you’re not meant to ever be sure how much of it is a hallucination), yet it hardly ever feels like Claus is not getting his point across. These are the kind of rich, labyrinthine sentences that can be read very quickly if you’re eager to get through the plot (which is quite tense and gripping), but that also reward a second, slow look by yielding up all kind of revelations and ponderables.
Here’s one of many fine passages:
Back outside, where the light was still needle-sharp and a hot wind of dust and needles had begun to blow, the teacher felt his eyes tearing again. The old man [a Nazi sympathizer] looked questioningly at the boy [the teacher’s sidekick] with his myopic gaze and halted. A superannuated harlequin, a terrifying puppet-show villain, he began to coo, but then a low croak emerged from his ribs, which he was clasping, and turned into the words: Precisely, just so, such is inevitably the effect the memory of Crabbe [the longed-for neo-Nazi messiah] has on his followers. Dear me, dear me, he added, pressing down in the region of his liver, his voice dying away. The teacher wiped his eyes with two fingers (which he knew to be dirty) but got no help from the boy at this strange juncture: the boy just stood there smiling.
“Tell me, how are things in Holland?” the man said.
“Right, Father, what are things like?” the boy asked.
Furious, humiliated, the teacher shrugged.
“Precisely,” said the old man . . .
You can see here the kind of ambiguity and obscurity in which the entire book exists. The Nazi completely misreads the reasons behind the teacher’s emotions (which remain ambiguous to us as well–just the dust, or something more?), and the teacher never quite resolves the dilemma of pretending to go with it (collaborate) or reveal that he is not one of them. Here as elsewhere, the boy acts as a sort of mischievous conscience prodding the teacher toward what he should do with his own two-faced remarks. On a line-by-line level, I very much like the “superannuated harlequin, a terrifying puppet-show villain,” which wonderfully gets at the mix of comedy and menace this aging Nazi must exude.
At the end of the day, though Wonder certainly does deal with issues of collaboration and post-war Nazism, it felt to me like the book was more engaged with literary issues than thematic ones. That’s to say that Claus’s investigation into plot, language, and structure was more penetrating and in-depth than his treatment of the issues he raises in the novel. I think I prefer Darkroom of Damocles for insight into the moral questions surrounding collaboration and postwar justice, whereas Wonder looks at these matters on a much more individual scale, trying to find a proper literary language with which to approach the state of a person wracked with this kind of guilt (though what the narrator did during the war, if anything, remains a mystery).
I would very much like to check out The Sorrow of Belgium, reputed to be Claus’s masterpiece, and also reputed to deal with the moral issues raised by the war and the resistance in a much more direct manner.
One last notable thing about Wonder: it contains a rather insignificant allusion to the acts perpetrated upon the native inhabitants of the Congo under the leadership of King Leopold II. I mention this only because in 1962, when Wonder was published, this was certainly not something that was much discussed–or even known–in Belguim, making it noteworthy that Claus would include such an allusion in his book.