The Dilemmas of Mockery
On Willem Frederik Hermans’ A Guardian Angel Recalls
As I turned the final page of Dutch author Willem Frederik Herman’s A Guardian Angel Recalls, I found myself unsure what to think. The prose is fine, mostly flat. The conceit of the book, wherein a Guardian Angel narrates five days in the life of their ward Simon Alberegt, is absurd. It is, despite all this, utterly compelling. The force of the narrative, however, rushes the reader along with all the power of a river that has burst its banks and been turned dark and tumultuous by an unstoppable act of nature.
A Guardian Angel Recalls is, despite this force of its narrative, a flawed work. The events, each increasingly horrific, masterfully punctuated by lulls, never manage to dispel the absurdity of the premise. The Guardian Angel who narrates events is at times compelling but has only theological cliches for the more difficult questions the book presents. One issue here is that by having Alberegt confront dilemmas, moral or otherwise, via a conflict between the devil and his Guardian Angel, Hermans robs Alberegt of any meaningful agency even within the confines of the novel where, in a sense, everything is predetermined. Furthermore, the Guardian Angel ends up being a less than magnanimous figure. Such tensions and absurdities can be deployed to good effect. Yet it is not clear what Hermans is doing with this tension. It will take us some time, and more than a few words, to get clear about this. For now we can say that by robbing the protagonist of meaningful agency, by invoking a Guardian Angel who stops bullets from hitting him, and bombs from dropping on him, but cannot stop precisely the moments of drama and ineptitude the would propel the plot forward, Hermans takes dual aim at a God who has died at Auschwitz and postwar literature itself. The first point here will not require much explication. The second though requires understanding this novel as a deliberate attempt to invert and mock a common feature of postwar literature. A Guardian Angel Recalls is not quite a farce, nor a satire. It is most generously read as mockery of postwar literature, including the literature part. This produces its own dilemmas.