Egon Hostovský’s The Hideout, originally published in the mid-1940s, is another Central European novella rescued from obscurity by Pushkin Press. The novella takes the form of a letter written by a Czech engineer who makes a terrible mistake just before the Germans invade the former Czechoslovakia. He is writing to the wife he left behind with their children in Prague, explaining how he ended up in a cellar in northern France about to go to his death. He begins with why he left and carries on with his misadventures up until the novella cuts off abruptly.
The unnamed engineer begins with an admission that revealed, to me, how hapless and unworldly he is. Just before the world breaks out, the engineer is working on a new kind of anti-aircraft gunsight. It’s not finished, but it’s clear that the invading Germans would be very interested in it. The engineer is—as he tells people who ask—terrified that his military secret will fall into enemy hands. But, as he admits in the letter to his wife, he is rather more interested in catching up with Madame Olga, the Jewish widow that the engineer has been interested in. She goes to Paris and he follows. When the Germans swear out an arrest warrant for him, he lands deep in the soup, deeper than he is prepared to handle.
After he lands in Paris and runs through all the money he brought, the engineer is saved from arrest or immanent death by exposure when he bumps into an old acquaintance. Dr. Aubin, after the engineer tells him of his plight, offers to put the engineer up in his cellar, feed him, and hide him until they can make other arrangements. Dr. Aubin, in a piece of clear foreshadowing, tells the engineer of a cousin who went mad while hiding. This time, the doctor declares, will be different because the engineer will be able to leave whenever he likes. The door won’t be locked.
But for our weak-willed engineer, the promise of instant freedom isn’t enough to stop him from mental suffering. The engineer’s mental state deteriorates as food and supplies get scares. Dr. Aubin works for the Resistance and is frequently called away. The loneliness and the hunger drive the engineer to the brink, until he makes a stunningly stupid mistake.
The Hideout is an interesting journey inside the brain of someone who hide from the Germans that doesn’t follow the usual trajectory of World War II on-the-lam novels. The engineer isn’t Jewish. He’s just a guy who knows a little too much and who is terrible at realizing how dire circumstances are when he flees. Perhaps the best way to describe him is that the engineer is a guy whose life is heavily touched by good and bad (mostly bad) luck. His letter is deeply affecting. Even though he never apologizes for his actions, it’s clear he regrets ever leaving his family.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be published 25 July 2017.