A tense, thrilling, morally murky read, set in Nazi-occupied Antwerp and inspired by the author's own family history of collaboration during WW2
It is 1941, and Antwerp is in the grip of Nazi occupation. Young policeman Wilfried Wils has no intention of being a hero - but war has a way of catching up with people. When his idealistic best friend draws him into the growing resistance movement, and an SS commander tries to force him into collaborating, Wilfried's loyalties become horribly, fatally torn. As the beatings, destruction and round-ups intensify across the city, he is forced into an act that will have consequences he could never have imagined. Will asks what any of us would risk to fight evil.
Release date: June 8, 2021
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Print pages: 352
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of the cold or some other inconvenience, but because of
the silence that takes hold of the city. It’s coming down thick
and steady now. It’s night. I hear the sounds congealing into
a dull nothing. And then someone like me has to go out, no
matter how old he is. I know, son, everybody thinks: He’s going
to slip and break his hip. Soon he’ll be lying in a hospital bed
at St Vincent’s with his legs up in the air. And that’ll be the
end of him, laid low at last by the kind of bug they cultivate
in hospitals. It’s odd how the elderly get infected by other people’s
fear. The fear that makes them consent to being cooped
up in homes, letting themselves be fed codswallop and cold
porridge, going along with oh-bugger-off bingo nights and
submitting to a Moroccan assistant nurse with an arsewipe
in her hand. They can keep their fear. I’ve never been afraid,
not really, and nobody’s going to teach this clapped-out old
dog new tricks. Outside, the snow crunches under my boots.
No, not fancy shoes, but the old-fashioned boots I’ve stayed
true to for years, taken to the cobbler’s dozens of times and
greased almost weekly, walking boots that now allow me to
take a step back in time. The flakes are still drifting down.
Recently I saw an enlargement of one in a newspaper in the
library reading room. All one-offs, those snowflakes, beautifully
constructed mathematical worlds landing on my cap and coat.
No, I’m not going to write a poem about it. Nobody reads
them any more and I’ve run dry. The snow transforms the
city, imposing not just silence, but maybe thoughtfulness too,
remembering—on me, anyway. When it’s snowing I can see
better. As long as the snow is falling, you know what the city
really means, what it’s lost and what it’s trying to forget. The
city gives up the illusion that the past is past.
In front of me City Park is shining white. I wait and close
my eyes for a moment. The yellow light on the streets turns
blue, as blue as the tinted glass in the old gas lamps. Picture
a city with hardly any light. Faint blue light on the streets out
of fear of the fire that can fall from the skies. Those of us
lucky enough to have the use of a torch on night duty considered
light a privilege that was no business of any Germans,
war or no war. It was already dark enough, after all. I remember
the Germans being furious about their inability to get it
under control. They had to threaten insane fines and ultimately
the death penalty before people started to be a little less casual
with light. I’ve seen field gendarmes burst into spasms of rage
because we were using our torches unscreened. Sabotage!
And so on… and so forth. At the station our chief inspector
would cock an eyebrow: ‘Come on, lads… no mucking about.’
No reprimand—we had to stop mucking about, that was all.
Anyway, City Park bathed in faint blue light, that’s where we
were. But I turn right. Pacing slowly, I enter Quellin Straat.
Your great-grandfather is no longer looking at shop windows.
I see the city as she really is, a naked woman with a white
stole draped over her shoulders, the kind of woman doctors
and surgeons can’t keep their paws off: a new bosom, then a
different face. Magnificent buildings have been razed here,
office blocks put up in their place. Did you know there was
a grand hotel on the Keyser Lei corner, just near the opera
house? Built by a German before the First World War. Ever
learnt anything about Peter Benoît at school? Probably not,
and no need as far as I’m concerned. They used to teach
names and dates; nowadays they act like that was a mistake.
But nobody—not then, not now—gives you the smack on the
side of the head that history really is. A stream of filth, bastardry
that never stops, not really. It just keeps going. Peter
Benoît has become a street name. When I was at school we
almost had to go down on our knees for him. ‘He taught our
nation to sing.’ A real hero, in other words. A statue of this
once-worshipped composer stood directly opposite the opera,
surrounded by what people used to call Camille’s lido, named
after a mayor you’ve definitely never heard of, who I can only
vaguely remember myself. So the revered artist, the man who
once gave his nation singing lessons, looked out over a paddling
pool that was used as a public urinal, mostly by drunks.
The statue’s been relocated; the so-called lido was demolished
and as for that grand hotel where smart German officers
drank aperitifs with their sweethearts during the Second World
War… now it’s the site of a concrete monster that towers over
nothing much. So things were better in the old days, were
they, Bompa? I can already hear you thinking it, and besides,
if we ever get to see each other, if the family I helped create,
which no longer wants anything to do with me, allows it, I
am sure you will call me opa. After all, the word bompa is dying
out. But of course, the old days weren’t better. They were
just as bad. Imagination is everything. In the beginning there
wasn’t the Word and definitely not God’s. In the beginning
there was an imagined darkness—remember that. I stop for
a moment in the middle of the street. Two big black banners
are hanging from a building that no longer exists. Each banner
emblazoned with two lightning-bolt runes. I’m standing in
front of the headquarters of the Flemish SS. Those uniforms
used to drive us cops crazy. A mate got the book thrown at
him for not saluting some cocky little bastard in black. He
wasn’t even German, though he obviously wished he’d popped
out into the light of day somewhere more Teutonic. Bullyboys.
So many different uniforms… they made your head spin.
When to salute and when not to salute? Many’s the time I
had to grit my teeth. Some of those posers had absolutely no
respect. For people like that I might just have well been standing
there in my birthday suit. At the end of the street I turn
right. It must be about four in the morning. Still absolute
silence, snow falling and not a soul in sight. OK, apart from
a junkie who asks me for a euro. ‘Get stuffed,’ I say. ‘Come
on, grandad,’ he drivels. I look deep into his red-ringed eyes
as if I’m already sinking my fangs into his soul like a wormy
hellhound and tell him he’d better piss off before there’s
nothing left of him. Did you know your great-grandfather
eats blokes like that for breakfast? You don’t believe me? Later
you will, maybe: unfortunately. Bearings. On my right, at the
end of Keyser Lei, I see the railway cathedral officially called
Middenstatie, a name nobody uses. On my left, on the corner
of Keyser Lei and Frankrijk Lei, is Café Atlantic, with Hotel
Weber above it, headquarters of German Field Command.
The men in field grey swarmed around it, triumphant at first,
dragging themselves from one fancy dinner to the next, where
they would invariably be entertained with all due respect,
their boss for instance bending over a folder full of old ink
drawings of our city, offered to him as a gift by our mayor,
who was blinking like an owl on tranquillizers… All this
trouble so that they could later, after just a few years, be
reduced to a parody of their own triumph, knowing very well
that by then their so-called thousand-year Reich was already
in injury time. Now I turn right, towards the station and, a
dozen paces later, right again, into Vesting Straat. It’s cold.
I’m twenty or thereabouts. Someone behind me calls out
‘Wilfried!’ That’s not my real name, but more about that later.
The person behind me—Metdepenningen, Lode by name—
catches up and slaps me on the shoulder. Does that name
ring any bells? It may very well. But I’m not going to lay all
my cards on the table at once. Read on and all will be revealed.
‘I’m freezing my balls off.’ Lode slips, almost twisting his
ankle—I manage to grab him by the elbow—and swears.
We’ve just finished training together. Three months of listening
to people talk bollocks at us and then we were probationary
constables. What it came down to was that we had to keep
our uniforms clean and always obey anyone who had an extra
stripe. All through those three months I watched Lode sucking
furiously on his pencil and staring intently at the blackboard.
Whenever the instructor asked a question he put up his hand.
A show-off, definitely, and handsome to boot. Pitch-black
hair, roguish smile, son of a butcher who had a shop the other
side of Astrid Plein. He was the one who got our friendship
rolling. The kind of bloke who declares after just a week that
you’re mates for life. ‘You teach me something new every
day…’ I can still hear him saying it. Just when we’re about to
go up the two steps to the station, two field gendarmes come
out the door. They look at us and one of them roars at us to
follow them: ‘Sofort mitkommen! ’ Some clichés just happen to
be true. All Germans in uniform talked like that. So we went
with them, immediately, because we already knew we didn’t
have a choice. Normally we had to check in to get our orders,
but when one of those field arseholes roared, you followed.
We carry on south to Pelikaan Straat, Lode and me tagging
along behind the two uniformed supermen in complete silence
like a couple of schoolboys being punished for something.
The Germans have only been here six or seven months and
it’s like the whole place has been theirs for years. The city lay
down for them and spread her legs wide. Everything is organized.
Pedestrians going from the railway station to the Meir
have to walk on the right-hand pavement, with people headed
the other way on the opposite side, and woe betide you if go
against the flow by accident. If someone had predicted something
like that in the years before the war, everyone would
have been rolling on the floor, spluttering out beer froth while
they roared with laughter. But one squeak from the master
race and everyone’s following orders. And what’s more: they
like it. Discipline at last. We cross the road and go under the
railway viaduct to the Kievit district. Two streets further we
stop in front of a house with a flaking facade. One of the
field gendarmes shakes the powdery snow off his shoulders
and pounds on the door. The other one looks at us with an
expression that says ‘watch and learn’. But nothing happens.
The knocking only seems to have made the house quieter.
He hammers on the door again with his fist. Now we hear
some noise inside. Someone comes downstairs wailing in a
language I don’t understand. The door creaks open. Through
the chink we see a sinister face with big eyes. He immediately
gets a whack on the head with the front door as the two
Germans shove it all the way open. ‘Chaim Lizke?’ one of
them yells. We hear some mumbling. They go straight in,
gesturing for us to wait outside, and shut the door behind
them. ‘Another work dodger, I suppose,’ I whisper. Lode
doesn’t say a word. He stamps his feet against the cold. Tough
luck for him that he can’t afford the sturdy boots I’m wearing.
You have to know that in those days the provision of uniforms
was a complete shambles. Those who had enough money for
textile coupons were better dressed than the rest. That was
another thing that drove the Germans crazy. A couple of
years later we all had to buy new uniforms they’d designed
for us. But that rule only made things worse. By then only a
few inspectors had the means to get one. Everybody tried to
wear something that looked good from a distance if nothing
else, hoping to avoid a bollocking from somebody or other.
Meanwhile there’s a racket inside the house. People shouting
and crying. We hear children screeching. A cupboard falls
over. Somebody comes crashing down the stairs. More screeching.
But the orders bellowed in German are far louder than
anything else. The door swings open again and there they
are: the Lizke family. Five half-dressed children aged four to
twelve, a weeping woman with a cloth draped skew-whiff over
her hair and the father of the house keeping his eyes on the
ground while blood drips from his swelling ear. ‘The pride of
Israel,’ Meanbeard would have sneered. He’s someone you’ll
encounter later in the story. I’ll tell it like it was: I don’t have
a clue what those people had been cooking up for themselves,
but the consequences were far from salubrious. They were
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