Will, by Jeroen Olyslaegers

Jeroen Olyslaeger’s Will presents a complicated portrait of a man who was caught between the Belgian Resistance and pro-fascist Belgians during World War II. His refusal to take sides meant that everyone thought he was on their team. In the long shadow of the war, everyone looks at Wilfred Wils askance. When people know you won’t take a stand, they won’t stand with you. Wilfred tells his story to his great-grandson (with us watching over his shoulder) and, while he never justifies his actions, he is brutally honest for perhaps the first time in his long life.

Wilfred, when we meet him, is a poet of very little renown. Back then, he was a policeman. His very average grades in school kept him out of university and had zero prospects. His French tutor, Meanbeard, managed to wrangle Wilfred a job with the Antwerp police (patrol as he’s definitely not detective material). After the Germans invade Belgium, Wilfred learns why his tutor got him a job. Meanbeard thinks that Wilfred shares his sympathies for the Nazis. It’s a mistake that a lot of other people will make. You see, the only person Wilfred really cares about is himself. He has no deep principles he’s willing to die for. I’m not even sure he would put his neck out all that far for the people he calls his best friends. Because of this, Will is one of the strangest World War II books I’ve ever read. Most stories in the genre are all about heroes and villains. There are villains in Will, but I’m hard-pressed to identify any heroes.

Belgian tank on fire during the Battle of Antwerp, May 19, 1940 (Image via Wikicommons)

So, as elderly Wilfred wanders the streets of Antwerp and the apartment he shares with his equally elderly wife, we learn all of his secrets. We see Wilfred accompany Gestapo agents and other Belgian police as the Gestapo rounds up the city’s Jewish citizens. We see Wilfred try to drink his pints while members of the Flemish Legion trash anti-Nazi bars. We also see Wilfred attempt to stay out of everyone’s business as the stake rise around him. Meanbeard and the pro-fascists want Wilfred to spy on his friends in the resistance. His friends in the resistance want Wilfred to spy on the Nazis and the pro-fascists. It’s an impossible position.

Usually, I would be all over the ethical dilemmas of a book like this. Instead, I was more struck by the psychological aspects of Will. I was surprised by all the efforts to try and get Wilfred to turn spy. It was as though none of these people really knew Wilfred. Wilfred appears to have kept his own feelings and thoughts too close to the vest that all anyone else would see was a reflection of their own. Because he never directly contradicts anyone, Wilfred can get away with being cynical about everything and no one really takes him seriously. I was also fascinated by the hints in the latter parts of the book that, even though he believes that he’s finally coming clean about everything, Wilfred might not be remembering events clearly.

Will is not an easy book to read. I had to take some ABBA breaks when things got too heavy for me. But in retrospect, I’m glad I took a chance on Wilfred’s story. Because Olyslaeger’s protagonist is so deeply in the grey between black and white, Will present an opportunity to think more carefully about all of the millions of people who got caught between the Allies and the Axis while they were trying to figure out who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do in their lives. The only quibble I have about this book is the occasionally clunky word choice by the translator, David Colmer. Colmer is best when he doesn’t try to do colloquial.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

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