The Hideout by Egon Hostovsky
Translated by Fern Long
The trouble with reading and loving European literature is the realisation that there are stacks of books which have never been translated. However, fortunately for readers like me, there are wonderful publishers battling to bring us more of these works rendered for the Anglophone reader. The book I’m writing about today is one of two excellent works issued by Pushkin Press today (my review of the second will follow soon), and it really is a remarkable piece of writing.
The author, Egon Hostovsky, is new to me, but the little biography on the book flap tells me that he was “one of the foremost Czech writers of the twentieth century”. He was apparently related to Stefan Zweig and like the latter (and so many others of his countryfolk) he fled the Nazis and the Communists; unlike Zweig, he managed to make a home in New York, working for Radio Free Europe and continuing to write. From a quick look at his Wikipedia page, it seems that little of his work has made it into English and so more kudos to Pushkin for publishing this book.
“The Hideout”, first published in 1945, is narrated by an unnamed Czech engineer and is set in 1942. As the book opens, he begins a letter to his wife, Hanna, which he’s been promised will be conveyed to her after he’s carried out some unspecified action. He’s left his wife and family, and also his country, and as he begins to tell his tale we find out that he is in hiding, has killed a man and is wanted by the Nazis. As the story unfolds that we learn the facts about what happened, and initially it seems a case of a typical mid-life crisis. The engineer’s daughters are growing up and this is unsettling; he feels a certain distance from his wife Hanna, and is attracted by Madame Olga, a beautiful Jewish woman. However, things are not quite as straightforward as this; the engineer has invented a gun sight which could be useful to his country; but when Hitler signed the Munich Agreement,allowing the annexation parts of Czechoslovakia, he destroyed them, an act which infuriates his boss (who obviously has some kind of interest in passing the engineer’s plans on to the Germans).
So the engineer runs off – to Paris, ostensibly on business, but also to follow Madame Olga and because rumour reaches him that the Germans have a warrant for his arrest. But things do not go well with Madame Olga; she is prepared to become his kept woman, which he considers, until he hears of the fall of Czechoslovakia. From that point onward, he hits a downward spiral; unable to return to his home and homeland, he lives on the money he has and attempts to rework his invention to offer it to the French Government. Alas, they are uninterested and things become worse as the money runs out and the Germans invade France. The engineer has no choice but to run to another friend who can hide him in the French countryside. But the hideout he finds is a dark, damp cellar where he must exist in silence and with no light, in constant fear of discovery. Whether there can be any escape for this hunted man remains to be seen…
And the pavements thundered and thundered in augury of the tribunal with the trumpeters of death. Remnants of ruined homes, piled on the roofs of cars, slithered down blind alleys. And from mouth to mouth flew the story that armed monsters were dropping from the clouds. A terrified whisper became the new rhythm of Paris. No one recognised the countless costumes of betrayal, whose breath you felt from the mouths of strangers and of friends.
(The engineer’s reaction to the invasion of Paris by the Nazis)
“The Hideout” is a fine piece of writing, brilliantly conveying the engineer’s confused state of mind, in excellent translation by Fern Long. As I was reading I initially accepted the engineer’s story on face value until I realised that I had encountered the classic unreliable narrator. His tale is plausibly told, but gradually suspicion and paranoia creep in; we hear of the lack of food and human contact, of his teeth beginning to fall out, until it becomes clear that the man is suffering from a kind of sensory deprivation. When we see his limited encounters with others, their responses reveal quite how far away from a stable, sane mind-set he’s moved.
The book also paints a chilling picture of fragmented nations during WW2. Czechoslovakia was a nation which had a short life, from its formation in 1918 (when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire) until its absorption into the Soviet Bloc in 1948. It was a multi-ethnic state where different nationalities did not always rub along together particularly well, and the engineer’s story reflects the fragile friendships and alliances that would be torn apart by the war. In particular, his encounter with an old school colleague shows how divided they are by ideology and ethnicity.
A thread of symbolism runs through the book, as the pursued engineer has gone to ground literally underground in the earth of the cellar, and it is here that he finally encounters the French underground resistance. They will have a decisive effect on his future, although the ending is ambiguous, as ambiguous perhaps as the whole book has been, with only the engineer’s version of things to rely on; a version often revealed as erroneous by the reactions of others to him. Whether he will be able to carry out his task, whether his letter will ever reach his wife – well, we don’t know. But the book gives an unsettling vision of the effect of the Nazi aggression on individuals, the dehumanising effects of war, and how you can run but there’s one person you can’t escape:
A person can’t escape himself, people, God and the world all at once. No matter how he hides himself, he’s still in the play. Every move he makes is measured and weighed somewhere.
On the strength of “The Hideout”, I can understand why Egon Hostovsky is so highly regarded. This short work conveys so much in its pages and acts as a stark reminder of the dangers of extreme readers and totalitarian regimes – a warning we need to bear in mind in times when intolerance is increasing and we run the risk of failing to learn the lessons of history. Another excellent and timely publication from Pushkin Press.