The Ascent: A House Can Have Many Secrets

Ste­fan Hert­mans; David McK­ay, trans.

  • Review
By – August 28, 2023

In 1979, when Bel­gian author Ste­fan Hert­mans decid­ed to rent a damp old house on the banks of the sludgy Lieveke canal in a run­down neigh­bor­hood of Ghent, he wasn’t think­ing about its pre­vi­ous inhab­i­tants. The young, pen­ni­less writer was more inter­est­ed in hav­ing the space so that his artis­tic friends could gath­er, sing protest songs, and phi­los­o­phize. And he hoped that the vague draw­ings on the walls made by stains” and the elec­tri­cal wires creep­ing through the Bake­lite sock­ets like spi­der legs” would mean cheap rent.

But many years after he left the three-sto­ry house — with its dusty attic, chipped mar­ble fire­place, and unco­op­er­a­tive locks — he learned that, dur­ing World War II, it was occu­pied by Willem Ver­hulst, an SS intel­li­gence offi­cer. Hert­mans, by then a suc­cess­ful writer, found a mem­oir by Verhulst’s son Adri­aan, who had become a promi­nent historian. 

Hert­mans, whose first nov­el to be trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, War and Tur­pen­tine, was named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times, set off on a quest. Strad­dling the line between non­fic­tion and fic­tion, he delves into long-neglect­ed archives and seeks out inter­views with rel­a­tives, neigh­bors, and aging vet­er­ans while also exer­cis­ing his imag­i­na­tion. In doing so, he presents a grip­ping tale of the house on Dro­gen­hof Street, which con­tains both his own mem­o­ries and the secrets of the SS offi­cer and his family.

Using the house as a frame­work, the author pro­vides a vis­cer­al sense of life in the occu­pied city dur­ing the war, where, in a coun­try already split between Wal­loons and Flem­ish, res­i­dents are bit­ter­ly divid­ed. On the eve of World War II, Ver­hulst, a right-wing Flem­ish nation­al­ist, moves to Ghent with his wife, Mien — a Dutch farmer’s daugh­ter — and their three chil­dren. He works as a trav­el­ing sales­man for a radio equip­ment dis­trib­u­tor, a post that will prove impor­tant when the Ger­mans invade in ear­ly May 1940. By the end of May, the Bel­gian army will surrender. 

When the Ger­mans take over the radio sta­tion, Ver­hulst — with his knowl­edge of radio trans­mis­sion and his sym­pa­thy for the Ger­man cause — is offered the direc­tor­ship of Radio Flan­ders. He is thrilled with the pro­pa­gan­da broad­casts of march­ing music, Flem­ish choirs and blus­ter­ing speech­es.” He also earns a fat salary of 15,000 francs a month, while most fam­i­lies in Ghent can­not afford salt. He installs a bust of the Fuhrer on his mar­ble mantle­piece and dons an SS uni­form, much to his wife’s dis­may. She makes him change into a suit when­ev­er he enters the house. 

Though Ver­hulst was reject­ed for mil­i­tary ser­vice because he has only one eye (due to a child­hood ill­ness), he becomes a con­fi­den­tial agent for the SS, offi­cial­ly known as a Ver­trauensmann, or V‑mann. His duty is to com­pile lists for Nazi intel­li­gence of Jews, sus­pect­ed mem­bers of the resis­tance, social­ists, ene­mies of the Volk, and even the Boy Scouts because of their paci­fist phi­los­o­phy.” Some of the peo­ple he tar­gets are sent for inter­ro­ga­tions and bru­tal beat­ings, while oth­ers are deport­ed to Buchen­wald. He sits upstairs in his office, only vague­ly aware of the screams from the cel­lars, igno­rant of the details, that’s none of his business.” 

The Ascent is beau­ti­ful­ly trans­lat­ed by David McK­ay, who won the 2017 Von­del Prize for trans­lat­ing Hertmans’s ear­li­er nov­el. How­ev­er, because the book is writ­ten for a Bel­gian audi­ence, the author assumes that his read­ers under­stand the polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al divi­sions between the French-speak­ing Wal­loons and the Dutch-speak­ing Flem­ish in Bel­gium — cir­cum­stances that many Eng­lish-speak­ing read­ers may not be famil­iar with. It would have been help­ful to have an intro­duc­tion that explains this his­tor­i­cal context.

Hertmans’s par­al­lel sto­ries of Verhulst’s treach­ery and his own path to uncov­er­ing the secrets hid­den in the Dro­gen­hof house make for a com­pelling read. The records he finds in the nation­al archives of Verhulst’s post­war pros­e­cu­tion as a col­lab­o­ra­tor are shock­ing. As the author leafs through sev­en large card­board box­es piled high with half-decayed paper, dog-eared man­u­scripts, flim­sy car­bon copies, pen­ciled notes … stamped SECRET,” the read­er can hard­ly wait to find out what he discovers. 

Elaine Elin­son is coau­thor of the award-win­ning Wher­ev­er There’s a Fight: How Run­away Slaves, Suf­frag­ists, Immi­grants, Strik­ers, and Poets Shaped Civ­il Lib­er­ties in Cal­i­for­nia.

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