Translation Tuesdays: Wonder (1962), by Hugo Claus

A new series dedicated to literature in translation whether classic or contemporary.

Originally published as De verwondering
Translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim
Archipelago Books (2009)

Wonder is a strange book.  By turns sarcastic, hallucinatory, satirical, and dreamlike, it relates the misadventures of one Victor-Denijs de Rijckel, a teacher of English and German at a secondary school.  He is a teacher so anonymous he lacks any nickname usually given by students.  The novel follows Victor in his picaresque journey, an obsessive quest to find a woman.  Along the way, he acquires a Sancho Panza in the form of a bratty student named Verzele.  His journey ends when he and the student find themselves in a small town named Almout.  It hosts a meeting of former Nazi collaborators.  At the meeting, we learn about their devotion to Crabbe, a messiah figure they believe will return to Belgium.

The novel switches between third person accounts and a first person narrative (Victor’s) during his incarceration in an insane asylum.  The Castilian proverb used by Claus reveals the Wonder’s strange and cruel nature.  (Unfortunately, the proverb remains untranslated in the Archipelago Books edition.  The publisher did manage to get Goya’s illustration of the proverb, Los Caprichos no. 42, with donkeys riding their masters.)  The translated proverb reads, “You who cannot, carry me on your back.”  Further commentary by R. Stanley Johnson states the men’s eyes are closed representing ignorance along with a cruel donkey that controls a man with spurs.  Goya used this topsy-turvy image as “one of the strongest condemnations of contemporary Spanish society.”  The novel condemns contemporary Dutch society, the corrupting nature of Nazi collaboration, and the banal puritanical mysticism of fascism.

Submission and subservience play out among the various characters and the geopolitical background.  The reader absorbs the still-fresh wounds inflicted (and self-inflicted by the Second World War.)  An accretion occurs from the various strata of submission, tragic and cancerous, until it overwhelms every character.  Victor submits to the charms of a mystery woman he follows with obsessive passion.  He also follows Verzele, the roles of imperious schoolteacher and obedient pupil reversed.  The individual’s capitulation to the totalitarian State meets with ironic reversal in Belgium.  While resisting the lure of domestic fascist groups, Belgium came under occupation from German forces on their way to conquer France.  But Belgium was hardly a naïve innocent.  Even though fascism did not thrive there, the nation let a conservative Catholic authoritarianism thrive and flourish.  Belgium’s Catholicism provided the rich potting soil for the les fleurs du mal to bloom, aided by one Leon Degrelle.

While this may strike one as cheap anti-Catholic bigotry, one has only to look at Spain, Italy (fascism’s birthplace), Austria (Hitler’s birthplace), and the Vatican.  The Holy See may have saved a few thousand Jews during World War 2, but could have been more effective if they had bothered to excommunicate Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and other dictators who used Catholicism to further their tyrannical aims and countless atrocities.  (The Vatican would finally abolish the accusation of deicide in 1965, three years after the publication of Wonder, albeit a few decades late of the death camps.)

Leon Degrelle founded the conservative authoritarian Catholic Christus Rex movement and later fought on the Eastern Front as a member of the Waffen-SS.  Claus presents Crabbe as a thinly veiled version of Degrelle.  After the War, Degrelle fled to Spain.  Later on, he became active in various neo-Nazi movements.  The group devoted to Crabbe only looks more pathetic with the light of historical developments shining a light on the mendacious piety of these walleyed fanatics.

Claus weaves together a rich tapestry, presenting an array of memorable characters: the hackneyed anti-Semitic Buick salesman Teddy Maertens, the vicious schoolboy Verzele, the eccentric fascist sculptor Sprange, and many others.  They are planets revolving around Victor, a human void impersonating a scholar whose specialty is the life of Crabbe.

Unlike a realist or neo-realist piece, the novel reads like a New Wave film, a bastard-hybrid of L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) and Week End (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967).  This is a quest narrative as black comedy, populated with cowards, traitors, and fanatics.  Peopled by characters willing, by various degrees, to exchange their individuality for collective security and willfully ignorant of the crimes occurring right under their noses.

Wonder offers up brutally damning portraits and wildly farcical set pieces as evidence of his nation’s culpability in World War 2.  Claus’s indictment arises less from a lawyer’s accumulation of evidence but through a visionary dream-logic.  He presents the reader with both the allure and the horror of fascist collaboration.

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