The Second World War wasn’t all trenches, beaches and bombers. Away from the deafening noise of life or death conflicts on the front lines was a more tranquil affair. Entire nations and towns were occupied, overruled by new leaders. You could hear the pin of a grenade drop. From a distance, you would have no idea.
Here the bullets don’t fiercely propel themselves into one unfortunate target. They’re much slower than all that. The wounds they leave in their wake linger like disease and defeat their victims slowly from within. Here, in occupied territory, is a place where the heroes and villains are not as well defined or contrasting. It is 1941. We are in Antwerp. Despite being the minority, the Nazis are in charge.
Author Jeroen Olyslaegers is himself an Antwerp native. His worldview seems as familiar as it is shocking. Will is a hauntingly beautiful novel about moral corruption and obligation under duress. It tells the story of Wilfried Wils, a novice policeman and frustrated writer who, like plenty of other people, would like to pretend the fear and violence around him aren’t really happening.
As the novel opens, Wils and fellow officer Lode have been sequestered by the Nazis to round up some civilians for detainment. The captors end up on a train. Reading this in the present day we know exactly where they’ll end up and that their days are likely numbered. Back in 1941, the benefit of hindsight was not the luxury viewing glass it is today.
Will is an interesting novel in that it tells its story from contrasting vantage points – a time of war and a time of apparent peace many decades later when the guilt has had time to cripple its survivors. Hindsight is what pieces Olyslaegers’ story together and what subsequently unravels its characters.
Olyslaegers’ prose displays the weight of humanity on a macro scale, interweaving personal drama and day to day professional obligation against a backdrop of global conflict and tyranny. In one brilliant passage, he describes the occupation as less of an invasion and more of an inescapable social upheaval akin to having a child:
“Having kids is the most normal thing in the world until you’ve got them and find yourself looking at a creature in a cradle and everyone expects you to change everything to accommodate it. Everyone acts like it’s the most normal thing in the world but it doesn’t feel like it. Everyone gathered around the cradle bleats that you should be happy to have a healthy child and that’s all there is to it. When a city is occupied by new masters, new customs, you get the same thing. After the shock most people can’t wait to act like it’s normal.”
Under occupation, normality is a fairytale that citizens enchant themselves with. But as the novel progresses and this self-deception becomes harder to ignore amid increasing conflict to his own community, the heart of our protagonist begins to darken substantially.
The narrative device of the character bleeding out into his journal as both an explanation and a warning to his younger family is apt. Darting between eras, Will grants us a view of the dark and the light within mere sentences of each other as we glide between recollection and reflection.
In doing so, Olyslaegers brings to mind the narration in Apocalypse Now – at first we read only a dossier describing an enigma but by the time we’ve gone down the river and into the heart of darkness the myth has fleshed out. It has transformed into a man that can be both revered and feared. The cold prose has warmed into passion and as the journey envelopes us delirium creeps in. By the final scenes of fury, the detachment has come full circle and we find ourselves ushered like a brainwashed follower in the darkness before a God-like antagonist. In that black void it is impossible to tell if you are kneeling before him in either reverence or fear. As I said at the start of my review, from a distance looking down at Nazi-occupied Antwerp you’d have no idea.
This moral battleground is where Olyslaegers’ novel draws its intrigue and ultimately its strength. I loved that this is a novel that manages to internalise a global conflict. As such, it can make for a punishing read but it is an important (and somewhat unpopular) view of history that is worthy of a platform. At its heart, it shows us how men and women are overcome by circumstance. In that regard, it’s not just another war story but a universal fable that demands your attention. It is a warning. Please hear it out.
Will comes to us via Pushkin Press. For a few years now they’ve been one of my favourite publishers of overlooked or undiscovered classic and contemporary fiction. You know you’re in for a good read with a Pushkin book. Will is an excellent one.