The Intruder, by Adriaan Van der Veen
Becoming A Victim
by Adriaan Van der Veen.
Translated from the Dutch by James S. Holmes and Hans van Marle. Abelard-Schuman. 166 pp. $3.50.
The Intruder is a passionate but abstract novel about the lack of sensitivity shown Jewish suffering during the last war. The hero, a young Dutchman who lives in New York, falls in love with a Jewish girl who had fled before the Nazis from Holland. Neither their love nor the war constitutes the interest of the book; only the young man’s involvement in a matter of conscience is explored, and this mainly through his relentless posing of one question: how can the Gentile—after all that has happened—fail to be an intruder?
The novel is almost entirely an exposition of the mental agony undergone by the (un-named) hero in his attempt to comprehend and feel the sufferings of the Jews. Striving to become worthy of his Vera, he loses all comfort. His difficult, slightly morbid honesty alienates his few American friends. His former innocence, a patronizing tolerance and liberalism, gives way to an unbearable sensitivity to Jewish suffering.
But real as his suffering is, it seems a misplaced pain for a shaky principle. The book’s chief question is a variant of the old one: “Can you ever escape being a Jew?” “No—sooner or later you will be treated like one,” is its answer. Apparently the corruption of others must force one into an artificial proclamation of Jewishness. The hero effects his personal salvation through such a proclamation: as Miss Lonelyhearts embraces suffering and succumbs to it, so the intruder becomes a Jew. But while Nathanael West is not seeking a solution to a problem of conduct, Van der Veen is; we know that suffering can be tragic, but is it enough to transmute mere sensitivity into illumination and responsibility?
Van der Veen phrases his question in terms too European for the book’s American environment, which—while beautifully described—is mere backdrop. At best, Van der Veen writes about America like a perceptive European reporter:
In the summer it was quite different. Then the train was blazing hot and towards six o’clock the men tumbled on to the platform with their collars loosened and their ties pulled down, battered to a pulp by the city. There was the sound of children’s voices, light and shrill; and the women waiting in cars, efficient and cool, with their bare, tanned shoulders, honked on their horns, commanding and yet consoling, and tilted their heads forward for a moment, kindly permitting the sweaty breadwinner’s kiss of welcome. Then one car after the other swung out powerfully, and I walked up the hill in clouds of dust that softly settled on me.
That the novel is out of touch with America is regrettable mainly because it professes to be in touch. Van der Veen actually mislabels some of the feelings he calls anti-Semitic: for example, the anti-refugeeism of the “commuters” (a typical American negative attitude to the new immigrant) that helps drive the hero to his final proclamation; or Vera’s grotesque statement that she would not have been raped in an American college if she were not a Jew. Though much of Van der Veen’s anger is thus misdirected, some of the writing maintains a kind of independent value, as in this passage:
. . . Take one of these well-fed Americans, stick him in a reeking concentration camp on a starvation diet for three years, throw his wife and children in the gas chamber, turn a few brutes loose on him with their boots and billy-clubs, and you’ll see—he’s become a Jew: frightened twitches, the most shameful instincts are brought to life and are there to be read on that face of his distorted to an idiotic grin. We are all of us Jews if we are condemned to be.
Van der Veen’s book is, in spite of its shortcomings, a significant record of mental anguish. Its main question is always courageously put. Small wonder that the answer to the question, the conversion, has overtones of despair. The book ends ominously with V-E Day, a celebration which has become a bestial orgy, full of outrage and fear.